Saturday, April 26, 2014

Armadillos & Leprosy

‘Nothing at the time was more peculiar to me than the armored mammal of Louisiana, the armadillo, which I had seen dead on the road as I traveled to relatives in Baton Rouge. It was a thing aggressively obsolete in animal history but still mucking its way along, its stupid ranks torn to flat bits by modern autos on pavement laid down through the bogs. I could not know how closely related these creatures were to the poor lepers themselves. Among animals, only armadillos have leprosy. At Carville…I saw the doubloons from last year's Mardi Gras at Carville were imprinted on one side with an armadillo.’
                       —from Old Terror, New Hearts by Barry Hannah

The past year of rural life along the unpaved roads of central Florida has been an experience made tactile by more than a few battles with some of the area’s natural inhabitants, creatures here long before any of us two-legged wanderers decided to stop and call it home. Native of Louisiana, it’s hard to imagine wild things in Florida that weren’t a regular sight in my bayou homeland, but for one reason or another, these Florida woods have engendered a deeper exposure. The swarms of mosquitos were at first a constant bother, soon joined by hairy caterpillars and legions of fire ants. That nuisance was soon replaced by an invasion of squirrels not satisfied with the bird feeder and finding a way inside the house. Night toads I kick away from the door on a regular basis. I’ve stumbled upon rat snakes, black snakes and even a rattlesnake and one day watched as a six-foot alligator swam past my driveway. One way or another, I’ve managed these invaders, but what continues to plague the happy green of my yard is a nightly mob of armadillos on the hunt for grubs. For many, armadillos are those nasty flattened blobs seen squashed on highways. The reason so many end up as roadkill is a result of their odd habit of jumping vertically three to four feet in the air when startled. Armadillos end up as roadkill when they leap up against the grill or underside of passing vehicles, their hardshell armor as useless as chiffon when crashing against a steel box traveling at high speed. 

The name comes from a Spanish word meaning “little armored one,” but recent experience has made me think of these ancient varmints as something closer to abominable and not particularly little. In the palmetto scrublands of coastal Florida I wage daily battles with these ugly mammals that have been nosing around the southern United States for something like 65 million years. Five mornings out of seven I walk out into the somewhat wild acre of land surrounding my house to find wide swaths of grass that appears to have been exploded by a dozen or so buried cherry bombs—trademark of the nightly feeding habits carried out by the local armadillo population digging for grubs and turning my pampered yard into a plowed mess.   

Growing to the size of a terrier dog, the armadillo’s upper body is encased in a bony carapace with large shields on the shoulders and rump and nine bands in between. It has four toes on its front feet, the middle two being the longest, while the hind foot has five toes, the middle three the longest. All four feet are tipped with large, strong claws. The tail is long and tapering and completely covered by bony rings. In coloring, it is brownish gray with scattered hairs that can be yellow-white or even pinkish along the belly. For teeth it has only several peg-like molars. On average, nine-banded armadillos are about 30 inches in length, with a tail measuring close to 13 inches. Adult males weigh from 11 to 17 pounds, the females, 8 to 13 pounds. Overall it is possibly uglier even than the Predator that Arnold Schwarzenegger battled in the 1987 movie of that name. 

The nine-banded armadillo, the species found in the southern U.S., digs burrows and sleeps for long periods, up to sixteen hours a day, then forages in the early morning and evening for beetles, grubs, ants and other insects. They have very poor eyesight but utilize a keen sense of smell to hunt. They use strong legs and huge front claws for digging, and long, sticky tongues for extracting ants and termites. In addition to bugs, armadillos eat small vertebrates, plants, and some fruit. On occasion they will eat carrion. It moves quickly, and when necessary can remain under water for as long as six minutes. The density of the animal’s armor will cause it to sink in water unless it swallows air, inflating its stomach to twice normal size and raising its buoyancy, allowing it to swim across narrow streams and ditches. Solitary animals, they do not share their burrows with other adults.

Often used in the study of leprosy, armadillos are among the few known species that can contract the disease systemically. Humans can acquire a leprosy infection from armadillos by handling them or eating armadillo meat. Before the arrival of Europeans in the late 15th century leprosy was unknown in the New World, so given that armadillos are native to the Americas, they must have acquired the disease from humans at some point.

If moth balls don’t do the trick, the next step is to order a few bottles of coyote urine to sprinkle around their regular entry points. According to some, the armadillo’s keen sense of smell is inflamed by the odor of moth balls. They are also acutely attuned to the scent of their worst enemy’s urine and will not enter an area where a coyote has left its mark.


  1. This is very interesting. I have also heard that moth balls sprinkled around the outside of your house will also keep mice away!

  2. Sometimes Mother Nature really outdoes herself, right? On the upside, at least they don't spray.
    Mosquitoes, toads, caterpillars, gators, armadillos, that settles it: we're not holding the Blogger Christmas party at your house. . .


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America