Armadillos and Leprosy (Part 2 of 3)

The Book of Deadly Animals makes its debut in the United Kingdom November 3. To celebrate, I'm running here some expanded versions of tales I told in the book. If you read the magazine version of this story, you've only seen about half of it; I've revisited this one to add more information and more of my first-hand experience with the animals. This is the director's cut.

Beginning of this story

My personal acquaintance with armadillos began at a freak show in the Oklahoma Panhandle in the early 1970s.  The show’s exhibits included a five-legged sheep, a three-legged chicken, a hairless Mexican “Elephant-dog,” and, at the curtained end of the tent, to be seen only after payment of an extra dollar, a pickled, two-headed human baby (“Born to live,” a taped voice kept saying, and when I asked my mother what that meant, she said we’d talk about it later, but we never have). And a Living Dinosaur.

Contrary to its billing, the Living Dinosaur was not actually alive.  Its desiccated carcass was glued to a felt-covered board.  A placard explained that this creature had existed “when dinosaurs ruled the earth” and had survived to the present day.  The placard didn’t make clear that the thing itself was not a dinosaur, despite its resemblance to a miniature triceratops.  It was, in fact, an armadillo.  A huge taxonomic blunder had been compounded with the slip of an era.

Nowadays, when armadillo knick-knacks litter eBay and caricatures of the animal have promoted everything from Lone Star beer to the professional baseball team of Amarillo, Texas, the “Living Dinosaur” fraud would fool nobody.  But in the early 1970s, armadillos were unknown in the Oklahoma Panhandle and most of the rest of the country, though they had long been familiar to people in south Texas, Louisiana, and Florida.  Since crossing the Rio Grande into the United States in the 1870s, armadillos have colonized most of the Southeast, their progress having only recently come to an apparent halt at the Rockies in the West and around the southern tip of Indiana in the north, where cold has barred them from further progress.

During the 1970s armadillos also colonized the consciousness of the American public, so that soon everybody seemed to know what one looked like.  In the early 1980s I ventured downstate to attend college at Stillwater, Oklahoma.  On my first trip there, though I no longer found armadillos exotic, I nonetheless found myself startled at the sight of several hundred dead ones.  They littered the road and the right of way.  The day was hot, and many of the carcasses had bloated, their legs jutting at forty-five degree angles.  One in particular caught my eye: a car tire had halved it as neatly as a ripe watermelon.

This mini-apocalypse points to two interesting armadillo behaviors.  One is a defensive tactic: when threatened, an armadillo springs straight up.  This move is effective against most predators, but suicidal against cars.  The other behavior is dietary: armadillos eat carrion, including dead armadillos, and the grubs and maggots they find therein.  So a highway strewn with kindred carcasses apparently strikes an armadillo as an irresistible feast.

The armadillo family tree includes a number of interesting branches, including about twenty extant species in South America.  Some of them look like opossums that have tumbled through a dryer’s fluff cycle.  

Among their ancestors are an extinct North American species that weighed five or six hundred pounds.  Their nearest relatives are the anteaters and sloths, with which they share some extra flexibility in the spine and a lack of well-developed, specialized teeth.  The only armadillo found in the United States in modern times is the nine-banded species, so called because accordion folds in the middle of its back join the shell-like sections fore and aft.  The armor is made of ossified skin.  It’s not hard like a tortoise’s shell; it’s more like stiff leather.  The head and limbs sport plates of this armor as well.

Its unusual architecture causes the armadillo to copulate in the missionary position.  Its young are normally identical quadruplets all wrapped in the same placenta, though occasionally it produces eight or twelve identical young.  The fertilized armadillo egg can lie in its mother’s reproductive tract for up to three years, bathed in nourishing fluids, before implanting.  Some female armadillos, having mated only once, give birth to separate litters in successive years.

The armadillo’s oddities don’t stop there.  It can gulp air until its digestive tract balloons, making its heavy body light enough to swim.  Alternatively, it can stay deflated and walk underwater, holding its breath for as long as six minutes.  It doesn’t roll into a ball when attacked, as some of its southern relatives do, but it can plug a burrow entrance with its armored back and thrust its claws into the dirt so that it’s almost impossible to remove.  One authority claims a person can induce an armadillo to relax its grip by inserting a finger into its rectum, but I have not personally verified this fact.

One fact I have verified is that armadillos don’t do well in captivity.  When I was in college my dorm competed in an armadillo race.  It was, if memory serves, part of a festival involving a pie-in-the-face auction and other such revelry.  My dorm-mates and I went into the country a week or so before the event to capture our entrant.  We went at night and took flashlights.  A few miles out of town, we could actually hear the animals crashing around in a wash where people had dumped their trash.  When a flashlight beam caught one, it paused, then turned with surprising grace and fled.  It ran faster than I had expected, its pill-bug body scooting along like a drop of water sliding down a window pane, but its erratic course allowed us to catch up.  The guy who grabbed it uttered increasingly vile profanity as the armadillo bruised his gut with stiff kicks.  A flashlight beam showed the claws drawing a flurry of down from the guy’s vest.

Once we had the armadillo back to the dorm, it stayed in our rooms.  Whoever had it would go sleepless, because the thing wandered around all night, knocking over furniture and smacking into walls.  We fed it an assortment of leftovers smuggled from the cafeteria; it particularly liked cantaloupe.  We won the race by default because no one else bothered to catch an armadillo.  Afterwards, we let ours go.  No one had intentionally mistreated it, but its tail had somehow become ringed with wicked black wounds.

Though we didn’t mean to be, we were cruel to capture the armadillo.  We didn’t know that captive armadillos may sleep around the clock, like human victims of depression, or refuse food and water.  The males may dehydrate themselves by zealously scent-marking their cages with urine.  The captives may suffer from boils or constipation. If several are caged together, they lick each other’s wounds, keeping them open and weeping.  Sometimes the licking turns to cannibalism. And they seldom breed in captivity, so armadillo colonies like the one at LSU have to be replenished with frequent new captures.  Truman regularly sends his graduate students into the woods near Baton Rouge for more armadillos.

Such were the problems Storrs and Kirchheimer had to overcome in 1968, when they attempted to inoculate armadillos with M. leprae.  Not only did the armadillos get leprosy, they got it more thoroughly than any human being ever had.  Organs that remain untouched in the worst human cases were loaded with bacilli in the armadillos.  With their twelve-year life-spans—much longer than those of mice and rabbits—the armadillos lived long enough to develop full-blown cases.  This complete susceptibility is the reason armadillos remain the animal of choice for leprosy research.  It comes down to numbers: an armadillo yields one million times more of the M. leprae bacilli than a mouse footpad.


The Book of Deadly Animals (US)
Deadly Animals (UK)


  1. Gotta love the pink fairy armadillo, despite its name XD Such an alien/prehistoric-looking creature.

  2. Yeah--who could possibly have come up with that? What does its Spanish name (pichiciego) mean?

  3. I had to research it because "pichi" is not a word we use in my country. In Argentina, it seems, it means "small", and "ciego" is Spanish for blind, so it would mean something like "little blind one".
    Also, it seems that in Argentina, short-sighted people are sometimes called pichiciegos, although I don´t know if this is because of the animal, or if the animal was nicknamed like this after the term had been invented...

  4. Hm. I guess I like that better than "pink fairy." Now I'm wondering where, exactly, the pink fairy name is used, since I'm not finding a Spanish version of that among its common names. But the thing doesn't seem to range much outside Argentina.

    (Thanks for doing the research.)

  5. No problem!

    I have read about this animal since childhood, and in Spanish books it was always pichiciego. There's no equivalent to the "pink fairy" part. I was actually quite surprised when I found it under that name in English websites once I finally got access to internet! (at about age 12).

    I like to think that whoever came up with the name was a woman. Or maybe a little girl XD

  6. This reminds me of fer-de-lance, a name apparently not in use where the snake actually lives. Can you confirm that?

  7. Yes I can confirm it, at least for Mexico. Here it is called the "nauyaca real". Nauyaca comes from a local indian language- don´t remember which one, though, but it is applied to many pit vipers. Real means royal, so it basically means "royal pitviper". Some people also call it "cuatronarices", literally "fournoses" because of the heat-sensory pits which resemble additional nostrils.

    I have read "hierro de lanza" (lance iron), "punta de lanza" (lancehead) and other names for this snake but always in books- and many of them printed in Spain. In Mexico, practically no one calls them that.

  8. Interesting. I wonder how these non-local names get attached? I remember David Dary commenting in his book about the American buffalo that no one who actually deals with them calls them "bison," despite what the books say.

  9. Maybe because people who live in wild places and coexist with many of these wild animals don´t read many books. I mean, for most people in rural areas here in Mexico, bobcats are "gato montés" (wildcat), coatis are "tejón" (badger) and peccaries are "jabalí" (wild boar), because that's what they were called by Spaniards and they simply kept using the name from generation to generation without ever knowing that the true wildcat, badger and wild boar are actually completely different animals from Europe. Well, except for the American badger which does live in Mexico but is called tlalcoyote instead! What a mess, huh...

  10. Along that line, I remember reading in older books about two similar Indian animals, the leopard and the panther. The leopard was believed to be a hybrid between the lion ("leo") and the panther ("pard"). Hunters and naturalists mentioned various distinctions between panther and leopard, including the important fact that one was a man-eater and the other not. This was all very confusing to me until I realized that, according to current ideas, both of those animals are the leopard--Panthera pardus. (I hope that made sense.)

  11. Yes, I knew that story too. But the versions I had read said that the panther and the leopard could be told apart by the length of their tail! Never knew the part about one of them being a man eater and not the other.

    Here in Mexico, and in some parts of South America too, country people often say that there are several kinds of jaguars, some with larger spots and longer/shorter legs than others, and of course, they insist about black jags being a different species. They often say that the black jag is much fiercer and more dangerous than the spotted kinds.

  12. Fascinating! I think the two kinds of leopard business is in Kenneth Anderson's books, among others. Anderson mentions distinctions very similar to what you're describing for the jaguar--size, temperament. There's also a bit about one being an animal, the other a supernatural creature. . .


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