Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Turtle Rabbits

Today we're going to talk about the peculiar little chimeras called armadillos. "Armadillo" comes from the Spanish words meaning 'little armored one', while the creature's native Nahuatl name is the much less flattering "azotochtli", or 'turtle-rabbit.' Docile burrowers who are often treated as pests, armadillos decorate belt-buckles and freeways all across the American south. But there's a lot about the humble armadillo that isn't common knowledge, and that's what we're here to discuss.

Like their numerous practical applications.

 For one thing, the dim, innocent armadillo is also a carrier of one of the most feared diseases in history: leprosy. Simply coming into contact with one (or eating their delicious, delicious meat,) is enough to cause a good chunk of the leprosy cases in the Americas. Armadillos make ideal carriers for the bacteria because their average body temperature is quite low by mammalian standards; a cozy 93° at rest. This happens to be the climate leprosy germs thrive in, and it's also roughly the same as a normal human's skin temperature. One bite or scratch from a disapproving armadillo is all it takes to infect someone... Even though the vast majority of the human population is naturally immune by now, which kind of kills the drama.

Disgusting. It's like a walking biohazard.
But the leprosy issues are nothing compared to the armadillo's unique reproductive habits. Most of the Cingulata (armadillo) order are pretty straightforward in this regard; but the Nine-banded Armadillo (one of the most common species in North America,) breaks the mold. Aside from having a delayed implantation time, and therefore a confoundedly long gestation period (8 months), the Nine-banded Armadillo is the only mammal in the world that routinely gives birth to clones. For reasons still not fully understood to science, most litters of Nine-banded Armadillos consists of exactly four offspring, all genetic carbon-copies of one another. That means that every one of these animals you'll ever see was most likely born with three identical siblings. Fraternal siblings do happen, but they're very rare, and quadruplets are by far the norm for Nine-banded Armadillos. Scientists love to capitalize on this quirk for research purposes: armadillos are the only mammalian species that is guaranteed to produce four interchangeable test subjects with each breeding. I'm not going to touch on the subject of animal experimentation. It's too thorny, and the primary purpose of this blog is to be educational and fun. But one thing is certain: there's a lot of potential to learn about genetics and gene-based behavior by studying the wonderful armadillo.

Such majesty.
 And so, I'll conclude this post with a little random armadillo trivia that I just couldn't stuff into the main article:
  • Armadillos have proportionally large eyes, but terrible vision.
  • The Pink Fairy Armadillo can bury itself in seconds if threatened.
  • Nine-banded Armadillos have the unfortunate habit of leaping when startled: they tend to jump about fender-height when spooked by an oncoming car.
  • An animal called the Screaming Hairy Armadillo exists. It's covered with bristly hair and screams horribly if frightened.
  • Armadillos cannot swim normally; their armor is too heavy. To cross a body of water the armadillo must first swallow a sizable volume of air, to inflate its digestive tract like a balloon and make itself light enough to float. 
Clint Eastwood approved!

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