The word armadillo means ‘little man in armor’ in Spanish. This protective plate of armor gives the armadillo protection from its predators. The armor is made of flexible bands that allow the animal to roll up into a nearly impregnable ball if attacked. Some armadillo like the nine banded armadillo can jump 3-4 feet straight in the air if sufficiently frightened, making it a particular danger on roads. One species, the giant armadillo, cannot roll up into a ball, but it can inflate its intestines in order to float across rivers. The giant armadillo can also hold its breath up to six minutes which helps it sink to the bottom of rivers in order to run across the riverbed.
Most armadillo species have no hair. But the hairy long-nosed armadillo has an extremely well-haired back and abdomen. This animal prefers to inhabit areas where it can avail itself of the protective cover offered by limestone formations. It also lives in places where the dense vegetation will offer it shade. As a very adaptable animal is can also be found in scrublands, open prairies, and rainforests. It can’t thrive in particularly cold or dry environments. Its body is not well insulated by fat, making it especially susceptible to heat and water loss.
Armadillos feed on insects and worms, particularly ants, but also small lizards and salamanders. They forage for meals by thrusting their souls into loose soil and leaf litter and frantically digging in erratic patterns, stopping occasionally to dig up grubs, beetles, ants, termites, and worms which they can detect with sensitive noses through eight inches of soil. They then lap up the insects with their sticky tongues.
Young armadillos are called pups, while the males are called listers and the females, zeds. A group of armadillo is called a fez.
The common armadillo originated in South America and has migrated north into North America over time.
Armadillos have not been extensively studied in the wild. Little is known about their natural ecology and behavior. In 2003 the only long term study on the species started in the Amazon in Peru. It was found that dozens of other species of mammals, reptiles, and birds used the giant armadillos’ burrows on the same day including the rare short-eared dog. Because of this, the species is considered a habitat engineer.
The greatest threat to the armadillo is habitat destruction. As more and more forests in the Peruvian lowlands and highlands are logged or removed for agricultural reasons, the amount of suitable armadillo habitat shrinks. Hunting is also a concern as indigenous people eat the meat of the armadillo. Poaching is also a concern as the armadillo is sometimes smuggled and sold on the black market. Peru has laws protecting the armadillo, but it’s thought that these are softly enforced.