Bulletproof Banditos

Creation on Display

by Stephanie McDorman on April 1, 2016
Featured in Answers Magazine

Wandering around America’s grasslands is one of the world’s most talented banditos. But robbing vaults and escaping capture requires more than a tough hide.

Word of advice . . . never shoot an armadillo. A Georgia man once took aim at an armadillo and accidentally shot his mother-in- law. The bullet ricocheted off the armadillo’s tough hide, careened into a fence, through her door, through her recliner, and into her back. Thankfully, she was not seriously injured. In a similar incident, a Texas man claims his bullet bounced off an armadillo, hitting him in the face and requiring doctors to wire his jaw shut.

Only in America

The armadillo’s tough exterior inspired the Aztecs to call it āyōtōchtli, which means “turtle-rabbit.” With bony plates covering the head, back, legs, and tail, it has the distinction of being the only mammal with an exterior bony shell.

When Spanish conquistadors first happened upon this strange critter, found only in the Americas, they named it armadillo, “little armored one.” About twenty different species of armadillos wander the hot grasslands, forests, and scrublands of South America and Mexico. Only one, the nine-banded armadillo, is found in the United States, but it didn’t cross the Rio Grande into Texas until the mid-1800s. Today, this species can be found as far north as central Indiana and eastward into Florida and South Carolina.

Mini Tanks

Instead of rigid bony plates growing out from the skeleton, like a turtle shell, the armadillo’s armor is made up of countless six-sided tiles called osteoderms. Each tile consists of a hard, bony plate covered by skin. A thin layer of keratin—the material in our fingernails—coats the top. All those tiny tiles are held together by tough, flexible collagen fibers.

Some people dispute claims that armadillos can actually deflect bullets. Admittedly, the osteoderms aren’t thick enough to stop a direct hit from a high-speed round. But that tough hide easily deflects the claws of raccoons and wildcats, which are not known to carry firearms.

Not Just an Armored Slowpoke

The middle section of the armadillo’s back may remind you of Slinky Dog. Well, it’s not that stretchy, but the armor bands give him amazing flexibility for a walking tank. The combination of a soft, pliable belly and moveable armor bands makes him surprisingly agile, able to twist and dive into a burrow to escape predators with ease.

Brilliant escape tactics have no doubt aided the armadillo’s survival.

Contrary to popular belief, the nine-banded armadillo does not curl up into a ball for protection. When frightened, he’ll shoot up into the air, as high as three feet (1 m), then take off in a fast, zigzagging run. Armadillos have even been known to scale fences.

If water is nearby, he can jump right in and disappear, holding his breath for up to six minutes as he scurries across the bottom. Or he can gulp in air, puffing up his belly like a balloon, and paddle across a stream or pond. Brilliant escape tactics have no doubt aided the armadillo’s survival and northward spread.

Diggin’ ’Dillo

When escape routes are cut off, the ’dillo digs with his powerful front claws. It’s a matter of a few seconds for him to dig a little space to wedge his soft parts in, leaving only his hard shell exposed to a predator.

The ’dillo digs feverishly, not only in emergencies but also to make permanent safe houses. He may have as many as twenty burrows in his ten-acre range, with multiple emergency exits. He spends as much as 17 hours a day sleeping underground and prefers to wait until dusk to leave the protection of his tunnels. But in winter the armadillo normally ventures out only during the warmer daylight hours because he is not built for cold.

Eating Machine

Although the armadillo is an insect-eating machine, he’ll eat just about anything, and he spends most of his waking hours foraging. Shuffling along, nose to the ground, he can sniff out insects as deep as six inches underground. He digs down to them easily with his strong front claws.

At the scent of a delicious, hard-to-reach morsel, a unique salivary bladder squirts sticky saliva onto the long tongue, transforming it into the perfect bug-grabbing tool. An armadillo can gobble hundreds of ant eggs or dozens of insects with every flick of his tongue. He’ll lick up everything in one hole, then scoot along, sniffing out the next ant colony smorgasbord.

A Working Formula

He doesn’t look like much. In fact, some people may call him ugly. But the armadillo’s unique combination of features has allowed this humble species to thrive and grow. In less than two centuries, he has extended his presence northward by more than 1,200 miles (1900 km). He obviously does quite well with the designs given by the Creator.

Did You Know . . .

  • Only one species, the three-banded armadillo, can roll up into a ball for protection.
  • The smallest species, the pink fairy armadillo, boasts a pale pink shell and is about the size of a chipmunk.
  • The screaming hairy armadillo screeches when frightened and sports long hair on its back.
  • The armadillo is the only mammal that routinely bears identical quadruplets.
  • The nine-banded armadillo is the only animal known to be able to contract leprosy. Because of this unique quality, the armadillo has helped researchers study the disease.
  • Engineers are looking to the armadillo’s flexible segmented shell as a pattern for better bulletproof armor.
  • People in South America eat armadillos. During the Great Depression, Texans called them “poor man’s pork” and “Texas turkey.” Although smelly, armadillos supposedly taste much like pork.
  • Armadillo racing took off in the 1970s in Texas. Local culture festivals all over the state include armadillo races, and “trainers” even take their armadillos to race out of state.

Class: Mammalia
Order: Cingulata
Family: Dasypodidae
(The nine-banded armadillo, found in the United States and below the border, is Dasypus novemcinctus.)
Diet: Omnivorous, but mostly eat insects, especially ants and termites
Range: Central and South America as far south as Uruguay, and the southeastern United States

Stephanie McDorman is Creation Museum registrar, overseeing the museum’s collections. She received her BS in biology from Milligan College in 1994. Stephanie and her husband Perry, the museum’s naturalist, are avid outdoor enthusiasts.

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