The armadillo, the armor-clad mammal that meanders through the Americas, has long piqued the curiosity of nature enthusiasts. Among the curious armadillo facts we explore, they are wrapped in a suit of impenetrable bony plates. Armadillos have adapted to survival in a wide array of environments, from rainforests to deserts.
Yet, behind their shield lies many an interesting fact—did you know these seemingly solitary mammals can give birth to identical quadruplets? Or that the nine-banded armadillo is the only armadillo species inhabiting the United States?
Read on to uncover the diverse species of armadillos, marvel at their unique feeding habits, and explore how the distinctive structure of their armor is both advantageous and limiting.
11 Facts About Armadillos For Curious Minds
1. Armadillos are covered with bony plates called “scutes”
When we think of armadillos, we think of the armor covering their bodies. This distinctive body armor comprises bony plates, or osteoderms, which fuse with their skin to create protective scutes. These scutes cover the armadillo’s head, back, tail, and sides. However, they vary in number and rigidity among species, accommodating their needs for flexibility and movement.
Armadillos originated in South America and have evolved these special overlapping plates over millions of years to protect themselves from predators and environmental hazards. Interestingly, the bony plates covered in keratin share the same protein found in human hair and nails.
An armadillo's underbelly remains unarmored and features coarse, sparse hairs for insulation and sensory purposes. Armadillos can also shed and regrow their scutes, repairing damage or accommodating their growth.
2. There are 20 species of Armadillo
Armadillos belong to the animal family known as Dasypodidae. This family is part of the order Cingulata, including extinct armadillo-like creatures.
When many people think of armadillos, the image that often comes to mind is the familiar Nine-Banded Armadillo. However, this species, ubiquitous in Central and North America, is just one of the 20 species in the armadillo family.
The Pink Fairy Armadillo, typically found in Argentina, is considered the smallest, measuring a mere 5 inches in length. With its pink, leathery shell stretching over its back and silky white fur underneath, this tiny creature seems as mythical as its namesake. Known as a "sand-swimmer," it is the only species with a unique adaptation that allows it to almost "swim" through the loose sand, much like a fish does in the water.
At the other end of the scale is the Giant Armadillo. This South American native can grow up to 3.3 feet in length, excluding the tail—making it the largest species in the armadillo family. Seldom seen by humans due to its nocturnal and solitary nature, it bears an impressive 80 - 100 teeth—more than any other terrestrial mammal.
Only one species (and two subspecies thereof) can roll itself into a ball, and that's the Three-Banded Armadillo—a peculiar phenomenon often associated with all armadillos but, in reality, limited to only a select few.
Read more: Types of Armadillo.
3. Armadillos are terrific diggers
The nocturnal armadillo has developed excellent digging skills to help it survive in the wild3. They can easily dig through soil and create elaborate burrow systems using their strong, curved claws on their front and hind legs.
These underground burrows protect them from predators and provide them with a comfortable resting environment with stable temperature and humidity levels. While digging, armadillos use their snouts to loosen the soil, and their powerful front claws effectively shovel the dirt out of the way.
Armadillos rely on an impressive sense of smell to detect insects and other invertebrates underground for food.
4. Armadillos are agile swimmers that can inflate their stomachs to float
Another interesting fact about armadillos that separates them from other mammals is their remarkable swimming ability. Armadillos inflate their stomachs to help them navigate rivers, ponds, and other bodies of water!
Armadillos float by gulping air, providing them with the buoyancy that allows them to glide easily across the surface of the water1. As they paddle with their front and hind limbs, they can effectively avoid any obstacle on the water.
Not only are armadillos skilled swimmers, but they're also relatively fast on land. Some species of armadillo, such as the nine-banded armadillo, can sprint at speeds of up to 30 mph. Their quickness helps them dodge predators and navigate their surroundings efficiently.
5. Armadillos are insectivores that can also enjoy small vertebrates, fruits, and plants
As solitary animals, most armadillos spend much of their day foraging alone. Primarily, armadillos eat insects, skillfully using their keen sense of smell to locate ants, termites, and other insects.
While digging into the soil with their sharp claws, they find underground insects and devour them with their long, sticky tongue. Armadillos can consume thousands of insects in one sitting, helping to regulate insect populations and maintain ecological balance.
Although insects are their favorite food, armadillos aren't picky eaters. They are opportunistic feeders, so they eat whatever is available in their area. For instance, they also eat small vertebrates like amphibians, reptiles, and mammals and scavenge for dead animals when the chance presents itself. An armadillo's diet even extends to tubers, roots, foliage, and fruits native to their habitat, like berries and melons.
These diverse eating habits contribute to the health of the armadillo’s ecosystems. When they eat plants, armadillos disperse seeds around the soil. Meanwhile, digging through the soil promotes soil aeration, allowing it to support more organisms.
6. Some female armadillos give birth to unique identical quadruplets in a single litter
One interesting aspect of armadillo reproduction is the birth of unique identical quadruplets in a single litter. This phenomenon occurs mainly in the nine-banded species. Polyembryony involves a single fertilized egg divided into four embryos with the same genetic material. As a result, the quadruplets are either male or female, with identical genetic makeup.
Nine-banded armadillos usually have a gestation period of around 120 days. Then, the female gives birth to a litter of four pups, all covered in soft, leathery skin.
This skin gradually transforms into protective armor within the first few weeks after birth. While this happens, the mother armadillo cares for her young, teaching them essential skills such as foraging, digging, and navigating their environment. Eventually, the baby armadillos become independent and venture out on their own.
7. Three-banded armadillos curl up into a ball for protection
Not all armadillos roll into a ball for protection. In fact, only two species of three-banded armadillo possess the remarkable defensive ability to curl up into a protective ball to protect itself from danger.
The Brazilian three-banded armadillo (Tolypeutes tricinctus) and the Southern three-banded armadillo (Tolypeutes matacus) form themselves into tight balls for protection, using their specialized armor against predators like birds of prey or big cats2. Other armadillos simply burrow into the ground or seek cover when threatened.
How does the three-banded armadillo do this? First, it retracts its head and limbs, which curls its flexible armor over its soft underbelly. The armor comprises three bands (hence their name), forming armadillo shells that cover their entire bodies. In one move, the animal creates a near-impervious shield against all attacks. Remarkably, its head and tail fit seamlessly into this defensive posture.
8. Armadillos have gestation periods of 60 to 120 days, depending on the species
Depending on species or body size, armadillos have different gestation periods. Smaller species, like the pink fairy armadillo (Chlamyphorus truncatus) and the six-banded armadillo (Euphractus sexcinctus), typically have gestation periods of 60 days.
On the other hand, larger species, such as the giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus) and the greater long-nosed armadillo (Dasypus kappleri), have gestation periods of 120 days.
Forming their larger and more complex body armor requires an extended development time to proceed properly.
9. Armadillo young develop their armor weeks after birth
At birth, armadillo pups have soft, leathery skin that provides only minimal protection. Within hours, though, this skin begins to harden. Then, a strong suit of armor made of keratin starts to replace its original skin over the next several weeks. Their armor also grows as the pups grow. New scutes form and existing ones expand to accommodate the changes in their bodies.
While armadillo pups might be vulnerable, they can already move around as soon as they are born. They can follow their mother and learn essential survival skills while waiting for their armor to form.
10. People hunt armadillos for their meat and shells
People in the Americas practice armadillo hunting, a culturally significant tradition in Central and South America and the southern United States. They hunt most species for their meat and shells, which they use for various purposes. For example, armadillo meat has a distinctive flavor and texture, making them sought-after ingredients for traditional stews, soups, and roasts.
Moreover, some communities believe armadillo meat has medicinal properties, further boosting its popularity.
Besides their dietary importance, armadillos are important materials for local handicrafts. Locals have used their carapaces, or dorsal sections of the shells, to make bowls or containers. They also carve the scutes into intricately designed ornaments.
11. Some armadillo species are vulnerable to habitat loss
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified most armadillo species, like the common nine-banded and the screaming hairy armadillo, as “Least Concern,” which indicates a low risk of extinction.
However, other armadillo species, like the giant armadillo and the pink fairy armadillo, are threatened by habitat loss, earning the designation of "vulnerable species."
Humans have destroyed and fragmented the natural habitats where armadillos live through deforestation, agriculture, urbanization, and infrastructure development. With reduced habitats, these armadillos face a limited food supply and lower chances for survival.
The largest species are the giant armadillos, and they are a prime example of this vulnerability. Over the years, the giant armadillo has seen a sharp population decline, thanks to habitat loss and poaching for their meat and shells. Noting this decline, the IUCN Red List has labeled it as "Vulnerable.”
12. Armadillos can contract and transmit leprosy
Nine-banded armadillos have become major contributors to leprosy research thanks to their ability to contract and transmit the disease. The bacterium Mycobacterium leprae can thrive in an armadillo's body because of its low body temperature, which resembles that of humans.
The first case of an armadillo contracting leprosy was recorded in the 1970s. Since then, researchers have gained valuable insights into the disease’s host-pathogen interactions and the factors affecting vulnerability. Studying armadillos has enabled scientists to develop and test new diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines for leprosy, which has profoundly affected human life for years.
Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with A.
Schaefer, J. M., & Hostetler, M. E. (2003). The nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus). University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, EDIS.
Loughry, W. J., Superina, M., McDonough, C. M., & Abba, A. M. (2015). Research on armadillos: A review and prospectus. Journal of Mammalogy, 96(4), 635-644.
Loughry, W. J., & McDonough, C. M. (2013). The Nine-Banded Armadillo: A Natural History. University of Oklahoma Press.