The nine-banded armadillo is the official mammal of the state of Texas, USA. Just as the majority of the citizens of this great state are not native, neither is the armadillo.
A Brief History
The armadillo is actually native to South America. Legend has it that the first immigrants entered the Texas area in the early 1900s and a group of these most adaptive animals escaped from a circus cage and took up residence in the Texas wilderness.
Since then, they have made a slow, but steady, migration to both the east and north. They can now be found as far north as Kansas and as far east as Virginia.
The Makings of an Invasion
The nine-banded armadillo is very adaptive. While they are normally nocturnal, if the temperature is right they can be active at any time of day. They are extremely omnivorous, eating anything from carrion to fresh grubs.
About the size of a small terrier, these not too cute creatures are endowed with leathery protective armour. When under attack, their most common defence is to roll up much in the same manner as a pill bug.
The female is usually impregnated in late autumn, holding the fertilized egg in stasis until the following spring. At this time the egg splits into four equal zygotes, and thus birth is given to identical quadruplets. They are born with their eyes open and assist their mother in foraging within two weeks of birth.
While actually gentle creatures, they can be lethal to a manicured lawn. They are burrowing creatures whose favourite food is grubs. Between them digging themselves a home and foraging for their supper, many beautiful lawns have bit the dust!
A favourite haunt in their suburban quest for a meal is the ever-present trash can. Even gardens are not safe, as armadillos do have a vegetarian streak as well
Being such an un-picky eater also has its downside. It is rumoured that they will eat anything; an old Southern US tale states they even dig up human graves. Since they eat anything that doesn't move too fast, they spend a good deal of time munching on anything that has been killed on the road. Due to their close proximity to their meal, they become 'road kill' themselves... in large numbers!
For the Good of Mankind
Armadillos are unusual mammals in one other way, a way which has been extremely beneficial to disease researchers. It seems they have an unusually low body temperature for a mammal. A temperature ideally suited for leprosy.
In humans and all other known mammals, leprosy is a disease of the extremities. Mycobacterium leprae, the bacterium which causes the disease, cannot survive at normal mammalian body temperatures, so it attacks the cooler parts of the body. The ears, fingers and toes for example. This bacterium has also never been successfully cultured outside of a living organism
The armadillo's normal temperature is perfect to allow leprosy to develop throughout the body. As cruel as this may seem, it is the only method scientists have to economically produce the bacteria in large quantities. With the armadillo's unwitting assistance, much has been discovered about this age-old disease.
Locally referred to as 'possum on the half shell', most residents of the southern US go out of their way to exterminate what they consider a major pest. In the wild, the armadillo's wide-ranging diet is actually quite beneficial to the environment. In some areas of South and Central America they are actually used as a food source, the taste described as being much like that of pork.
With their range widening at an astounding rate, it is generally accepted that there will be no shortage of the nine-banded armadillo any time soon. This bane to the suburban homeowner, and boon to the disease research scientists, has now become a permanent resident of the southern US.