Conservation Corner: The Armadillo’s Winning Hand

By Dan Zarlenga, Missouri Department of Conservation

Photo Caption: A nine-banded armadillo sniffs the ground for its next meal.
Photo courtesy the Missouri Department of Conservation

Four of a kind can be a winning hand in the game of poker. Apparently, in the game of life it is for the armadillo, too.

The nine-banded armadillo is truly a unique creature in Missouri. Armadillos are mammals, but one might think they look more like an ambling, leathery football. The odd critter is covered by two large plates with a series of nine smaller moveable “girdles” or “bands” around the midsection, the characteristic that gives the armadillo its name. This creates a structure a little like the carapace of a turtle, except the armadillo can’t retreat within it. “Armadillo” means “little armored one” in Spanish.

Look closely, though, and you’d notice tiny hairs poking up through the carapace and below it, which gives away the fact that the creature is a mammal.

Prior to 1980 or so, you’d likely have never seen an armadillo in Missouri. The adventurous little mammalian armored tanks came from Central America and Mexico, first expanding into Texas around 1849. From there, the armadillo made its way into the southwestern part of the Show-Me-State some 40 years ago and has been spreading farther north ever since. They can now be found throughout most of the state, except for pockets in the northern portion.

Armadillos have very poor eyesight, so if one startles you out on a trail, you’ve probably done the same to it! They do have a superb sense of smell, however. This helps them to sniff out their preferred food: insects, grubs, and invertebrates that hide directly beneath the soil. The armadillo uses its sharp claws to dig them up as soon as it catches their scent. This habit can sometimes put them at odds with homeowners who may find armadillos digging up their lawns and gardens. Rest assured that it’s nothing personal . . . just some sloppy eating habits.

Female armadillos have their young in the latter part of March, near the Vernal Equinox. One of the oddest things about armadillos is that every mother gives birth to a set of quadruplets. Each of the four offspring is genetically identical, gender and all! Strange as it is, dealing out four of a kind seems to be a strategy that has played out well for armadillos in the high stakes card game of evolution.

Armadillos are not really so good at bluffing, though . . . especially against automobiles. One evolutionary behavior that has not benefited them so well is their tendency to jump three or four feet straight up into the air when threatened or startled. Perhaps in the wild, this bluff works well to confuse and disorient a would-be predator so the armadillo can get away after landing again.

Unfortunately, when crossing roadways, it’s a gamble they tend to lose. The tactic often lands them square into the grill of an oncoming vehicle. Even the little armored one’s shell can’t save them from that impact. It’s why we tend to see so many dead armadillos along roads.

So, what’s the final takeaway then? If ever you find yourself playing a game of poker against a mother armadillo, you better be holding a royal or straight flush if you hope to win!