Aurelio is a nine-banded long-nosed armadillo we met in our garden one April evening just before sunset. He seemed unafraid of us, and let us photograph him for fifteen minutes before lumbering off.
Aurelio, a nocturnal feeder, had been spotted a few times after dark two or three days earlier, insouciantly clattering down our rock stairs in his amazing Samurai-style suit of armor, which is actually ossified, but on this particular evening he clocked in for work before dark to allow us a leisurely gander at him in the fading daylight.
“Armadillo” is a Spanish word meaning “little armoredone.” The nine-banded, long-nosed variety, less familiarly known as Dasypus novemcinctus, is the most widespread exemplar of the genus, found in North, Central and South America, but mainly in the semitropical and tropical regions thereof, as it has both a poor thermoregulatory system and a crummy metabolism, making it difficult to maintain its body temperature in cool or cold climes.
Its body temperature is lower than that of other placental mammals, which allows it to host Hansen’s bacillus, a.k.a. Mycobacterium lepræ, the causative microbe of leprosy, a bacillus that’s so finicky that it has thwarted every effort to grow it in the laboratory, but it’s happy as a clam when introduced to an armadillo.
But not to give M. leprae too nasty a rap sheet, it seems that Europeans gave the disease to Aurelio’s forebears in the last 400 years or so, and not vice-versa, as scientific studies have shown without any doubt that no leprosy existed in New World armadillos before Columbus set foot in the New World…
Armadillos are a leading source of the 150-250 new leprosy cases each year in the United States. I haven’t seen any statistics for Mexico, but the fragility of Mycobacterium lepræ once they abandon the armadillo is such that far more than casual contact is needed to contract the disease. Leprosy is not as contagious as, say, pneumonic plague or even the common cold. But the disease is patient, if anything.It’s estimated that as many as one-third of Americans infected with M. lepræ either hunt armadillos or handle or consume armadillo meat, which supposedly tastes like pork, not the obligatory “chicken” that everything else wild and odd tastes like. Whether like pork or like chicken, it’s unlikely that Armadillo Bourguignon, Armadillo Amandine or Armadillo Burgers will be on Colibri’s dinner menu any time soon.
On a slightly less morbid note, here are a few perhaps more sanguine factoids about armadillos, with apologies to the squeamish:
• Armadillos have powerful, clawed front feet, meant for digging in search of grubs and insects. They also have sticky tongues, like anteaters and aardvarks, and have a predilection for termites, which are a real scourge. Termites can gobble up your three-by-twelve roof beams in a couple of years, reducing them to the structural strength of a wet sponge, whereupon your roof collapses.
• At Punta el Custodio, armadillos destroy the roots of some plants, killing them, not because they eat the roots, but because the roots are collateral damage in the armadillos’ relentless hunt for insects, worms, larvae and grubs.
• Armadillos never give birth except to four identical quadruplets at once (no more and no fewer) – all from the same egg and all hooked up to the same placenta. No other mammal can make this extraordinary statement!
• Armadillos are good swimmers; they gulp air into their intestines to make themselves buoyant (otherwise they’d sink like a torpedoed ironclad), and, in shallow water they can walk along the bottom for up to six minutes on a single breath, slurping up larvae.
• Armadillos may give birth up to two years after being inseminated, as the female can put off implantation of the all-important, quadruplet-destined fertilized egg during lean times, implanting it only when the gravy train looks like it’s barreling down the tracks again. For this reason, paternity suits are virtually unheard of among armadillos.
• An armadillo does not roll himself up into a ball to escape predators. His tough armor plate is usually sufficient, and, when not, he can bury himself rather quickly with his powerful front feet. Armadillos are such good burrowers, in fact, that they have up to a dozen burrows they hang out in from one day to the next, sort of like having a house in New York, London, Paris, Biarritz, Palm Springs, Aruba, Wilkes Barre, Tuba City and other elegant venues. This makes the armadillo a sophisticated cosmopolitan critter.