There are not many creatures with armor that I can describe as cute.
Most of the time armor is lumbering and heavy or dangerous and spiky, as such most of the creatures that wear it are walking tanks in their ecosystems.
Yet, there is one little creature that wears armor and is kind of adorable, and that creature is the armadillo.
The armadillo’s name literally means ‘Little armored ones’ in Spanish, and it is a perfect way to describe it.
These little creatures are well known to the peoples of the new world and hold a special place in the hearts of anyone coming from there.
These intrepid little mammals developed in relative isolation for millions of years, which gave rise to their uniqueness, but even in the modern-day, they have continued to survive and thrive.
Though, even if they are doing okay, for the most part, their habits can be strange to us. After all, the extent of most people’s knowledge of these animals is their armor. What do they even eat?
Well, if you find yourself asking this question, then do I have the article for you! Today, we will discuss the armadillos’ eating habits and answer the question of just what they eat.
What Is An Armadillo?
First, we will start with the obvious question that is on everyone’s lips: just what are armadillos?
Armadillos are part of an order of New World placental mammals.
They belong to the superorder known as Xenarthra, which also includes sloths and anteaters. This order developed in isolation on the continent of South America for over 50 million years.
This is because South America was basically an island continent until it collided with the North American continent about 2 million years ago, in much the same way as Australia is today.
This isolation meant that species developed in different ways than what we normally see and gave rise to the Xenarthrans as the large herbivores and omnivores of the continent, some – like the Glyptodont and the Ground Sloths – becoming truly enormous in size.
This all changed when the Great American Interchange happened, and a land bridge was created between North and South America.
The more generalized and competitive animals of the North arrived and pushed the slower and less competitive megafauna of the South to extinction and by about 2 million years ago, the largest of the Xenarthrans died out.
This includes most of the armadillo families, and now only two of those families and twenty-one species remain.
Armadillos are defined by having tough leathery armor on their back that moves flexibly with their body, so they can curl into a ball.
The other main characteristic of an armadillo is its powerful and large claws, which it uses for digging.
So, What Do They Eat?
Armadillos mostly eat insects and any small invertebrate they can get their hands on. Ants, beetles, worms, termites, grubs, and so on, literally any type of insect that can be reached from the ground is ripe prey for an armadillo.
Armadillos are well-known diggers, using their claws for digging dens. However, they also make extensive use of their claws for finding prey, and so any invertebrate that lives on the ground is in trouble if an armadillo lives in the neighborhood.
In fact, an armadillo can eat thousands of insects each day despite its tiny size.
For most animals, even a few insects would be difficult to catch, but the armadillo has a special adaptation that helps with this.
It has an incredibly long and sticky tongue that can whip out and once it hits an insect, it doesn’t let go. The prey is then reeled into its doom.
The other fantastic adaptation that armadillos have for catching insects is their sense of smell. An armadillo’s eyesight is actually quite poor, but they have an incredibly keen sense of smell.
Their sense of smell is so good that even the tiniest grub hidden deep in the earth won’t escape their notice, and their powerful claws will soon reveal its hiding spot.
Where Do They Live?
As noted earlier, all Xenarthrans live exclusively in the Americas and predominantly in South America. However, of the Xenarthran family, armadillos are probably the most widespread and intrepid.
When the Great American Interchange happened, armadillos were among the few animals that traveled north and some even permanently settled in North America.
In South America, they are particularly diverse, with 19 members of the armadillo family found only in South America.
The country with the most diversity on the continent is strangely one of its smallest. Paraguay is home to 11 species of armadillo and while the extreme weather changes may affect other animals negatively, for the armadillo it’s a paradise.
Their tough armor, digging abilities, and reliance on abundant smaller prey mean that the climate impacts them very little and even if it does, they can always escape to their dens.
In North America, only two species of armadillo have become residents, with only one making its way into the United States itself.
This is the nine-banded armadillo, which is mostly in the south-central states (particularly Texas) still its range is massive.
The nine-banded armadillo is seen as far north-east as North Carolina, as south-east as Florida, and as far north as Indiana, which is an impressive range for a creature that a hundred years ago wasn’t seen anywhere outside of Texas in the US.
Part of the reason for its successful expansion is a lack of predators. When the Great American Interchange happened, predators that went to South America adapted to hunting these wily creatures.
However, the ones that stayed in North America wouldn’t have. Now that they are appearing in North America, no predator really has made a strategy to hunt them, so they are spreading incredibly quickly.
Fun Facts About Armadillos
Now, for some fun facts about these fascinating creatures, as they are more than just their diet:
- Armadillos are excellent swimmers. Despite being primarily diggers, they can use those powerful legs to cross water easily and can hold their breath for up to 6 minutes.
- They are very quick. Even though their legs are short, they can make them move and can run at a speed of up to 30 mph.
- They are good at climbing. The powerful legs and claws that are so good at digging and running also make them adept at climbing. Armadillos have been seen scaling fences in a matter of seconds, with the homeowners staring in disbelief.
Armadillos are small insectivores that primarily eat insects. Their hunting tactics have made them very successful and also provide great protection when needed from other hungry predators.
These creatures are truly South American icons and the circumstances in which they evolved are wonderful, amazing, and so unique that there is nothing quite like them on earth.
If you happen to see an armadillo crossing your path, consider yourself lucky, as though they are widespread, a lot of them are suffering from the by-products of human development.
Maybe give it a small grasshopper treat for the road while you’re at it as well.