Monday, May 28, 2012

Armadillo Tales

            Sometimes you look at a creature, and you wonder how exactly did it evolve into the beast that it is.  The kangaroo and platypus come to mind, but they are Australian creatures and who can account for the animal adaptations down under?  The one I really wonder about is one I see squashed all too often on the sides of Interstates in Oklahoma and Texas.  The armadillo.

            Just a few weeks ago I spotted an immigrant armadillo flattened on I-70 in Trego County.  How it got this far north I don’t know, but he must have brought friends because my husband saw another road kill armadillo on I-70 in Ellsworth County at about the same time.

            Just as African Killer bees keep moving north from South America, it appears armadillos are on a march to add to the road kill numbers in northern climates.  These little guys must not know anything about our winters, or they would keep their hairy little scutes where they belong, in southern climates.
Perhaps they should reconsider their march north since farmers and ranchers love armadillos about as much as they love prairie dogs. However, these prehistoric beasties won my heart years ago when I was a young college student in western Oklahoma.  I accidentally discovered their unusual ability to leap four to six feet vertically from a standing position in order to frighten their predators.  What athlete would not die to have a vertical like that of an armadillo?

            Imagine driving down an isolated highway late at night and noticing a bizarre creature waddling across the road. Looking at its funny snout and ears and ovoid body on short legs with long claws, I thought aliens might have invaded.

 A relative newcomer to Oklahoma, I had only seen armadillos in magazines such as National Geographic.  And I probably hadn’t seen many of those articles.  Any way, I spotted this odd creature in the road and slowed down to a near crawl.

  For lack of definitive sexual identification, I will call this creature a “he.”  Thinking he would hurry on across the road as I slowed down, I decelerated even more.  This had a similar effect upon the varmint in the road.  Only he decelerated to the point where all motion stopped.  Rolling forward a bit, I stopped too. Then the real show began.
Thank goodness I had my brights on so I got the full effect of his antics.  That armadillo leapt straight up in the air, a good foot above the hood of my old 66 Plymouth.  My headlights reflecting off his eyeballs added an eerie component to his comic jump.  Well above the hood of my car with that football-shaped body and those four clawed feet angling out, he hovered like a basketball player hanging in for a tough lay up. Once more alien invaders crossed my mind.

In different circumstances that armadillo would have ended up as road kill.  Because he surprised me on a little used road where I could slow down and ogle strange creatures in my path, his jump simply surprised the two of us with no damage done and a new fan won.  Had we been on a busy Interstate, his timing would have sent him leaping to an abrupt and messy end.

I have never see an armadillo since that doesn’t trigger the memory of my first introduction.  That high steppin’ fella charmed me so that I fell in love with these little guys that have been around in one form or another since prehistoric times. 

Since then, I began collecting armadillos.  Often times strangers spot my collection and ask what I might have asked nearly 30 years ago.  What is that creature? What fun—I can share the many odd facts about this immigrant to the New World.

The nine-banded armadillo living in the southern United States has several unique characteristics that have enabled it to survive its slow march north into our country.  Besides the obvious physical adaptation of the hair covered “shell” that protects the soft parts of its body and its amazing jumping ability, the armadillo is a reproductive marvel.

Like some marsupials, the female can delay development of the fertilized egg until conditions optimum-for-survival exist.  Nine-banded armadillos almost always bear four same-sex young.  According to James Michener’s book Texas, the female armadillo can also determine which gender of young she will bear.  I haven’t found a verification of that particular fact, but if true, then these creatures have abilities some folks would pay millions to possess.

Despite the bad rap these critters get in the agricultural community, they still charm me.  I like the idea of scaring predators away with an amazing jump and a funny face.  I also admire anything that can select when it delivers its young and what kind of young.  Now I just want one more chance to sneak up on an armadillo and watch it rise and hover.  However, I don’t want to meet it on the Interstate.  I want both of us to survive the experience unharmed.

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