We don’t get too many cloudy days in Texas compared to other places, which means that we cherish the few that we get. One of the best surprises comes when the cloud cover is particularly thick, such as it was last Friday morning, and more nocturnal denizens don’t get the memo that they need to go to bed. This means that on my morning bike ride to the Day Job, I see all sorts of interesting things. Screech owls catching one last drink from a puddle formed by lawn sprinklers. An especially fat opossum checking to see if someone left cat food out on the back porch. Raccoons caught up trees in road medians, as they realize they can’t get across the road until after rush hour traffic ends. Very occasionally, a lone coyote or grey fox sitting in the middle of a field, watching the sun come up. Very, very occasionally, we even get one of Texas’s great symbols digging in lawns and weed patches, slurping up grubs and worms in the freshly wet and cool dirt.
While the nine-banded armadillo isn’t unique to Texas, it’s lived here long enough to qualify as a native. The armadillo is currently the only member of the Edentata left in the continental United States, although it used to have quite a bit of company with anteaters, ground sloths, and glyptodonts during the last ice age. In the Anthropocene Epoch, it’s done quite well, even with the addition of cars, dogs, and fire ants.
Now, I could bring up all of the usual points shared with people who have never seen an armadillo in the wild. I could bring up that armadillos always have four pups in a litter, and those four are genetically identical. I could note that armadillos are the only mammals besides humans to carry and transmit leprosy. I could hint exactly how flexible that armor can be, especially relating the time I found one in my back yard, squeezing underneath the fence door like a cat. I might even relate how their eyesight is so poor that they’re nearly totally blind, but their hearing is so acute that if they let humans see and even get close to them, it’s because they simply don’t care. What is particularly noteworthy, though, is that they’re fast and incredibly nimble for something in a shell. Every time I encounter one, I rediscover how fast: the first time I saw one in the wild, nearly thirty years ago, I learned that their main defense is jumping as much as a meter high. I learned this as I tried to capture one and the little monster nearly knocked out my front teeth in the process. The night before I took these photos, I learned it again when I accidentally spooked one on my bicycle, and it paced my bike for a full minute before I slowed down and let it pass.
The real sign of how fast these guys can be? This one was moving so quickly while foraging that I didn’t even get the chance to adjust my camera to decent settings. At least, that’s my excuse, and I’ll blame the armadillo instead of my horrible photography skills.
As far as other notes on armadillos, most guides make noises about how they’ll curl into a ball, but they’re usually too busy running to consider doing something like that. What’s usually left out, though, is that they have an absolute addiction to beer, the cheaper the better. Hence, some longtime Texans may remember this set of ads from “the national beer of Texas”, involving a giant armadillo that ripped delivery trucks in half:
Even under the best conditions, the little American earth pigs ultimately realize that the day is getting long, and it’s time to go to bed. For armadillos, that’s usually in thick tangles, among greenbriar vines and other obstructions, and they dig tunnels just deep enough for them to hide their vulnerable parts. Just like a cat, when they’re done, as this one was, there’s only one view you get of them as they say goodbye.