Physical characteristics

The Spanish word armadillo means "little armored one." Armadillos are quite unique in that they are the last mammals to have a shell, that is, an ossification of the corium interrupted by several folds of the skin. The surface of the skin is gray or brown, quite soft and feels like leather. Thanks to the skin folds, the animal is very agile. Surprisingly stocky and low to the ground, armadillos are medium-sized mammals with extra articulating structures in the vertebral column that presumably improve digging. Armadillos are named for the tough bony carapace that covers the pelvic and pectoral girdles as well as areas on the head, limbs, and portions of the tail. Made of ossified dermal tissue covered with a horny epidermis, the carapace, ranging in color from dark to yellow-white, provides protection from thorny vegetation, conspecifics and predators. When harassed, armadillos will tuck their eyes under the shoulder shield and coil slightly to minimize the amount of exposed flesh. Three-banded armadillos (Tolypeutes) take this to the extreme and bend completely into a ball, exposing only thick carapace. Girdle-like armor banding (3-13) separated by

A nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) drinks from a shallow stream in Texas, USA. (Photo by A. Blank. Bruce Coleman, Inc. Reproduced by permission.)
Tolypeutes rolling into a ball, its defensive posture. (Illustration by Jacqueline Mahannah)

folds of skin provides flexibility and agility in locomotion. Black to white-colored hairs may be interspersed on the carapace and cover their soft underbellies.

The head varies from shovel-shaped to elongated and narrow. The ears vary in length as well and can be pointed or rounded. Powerful limbs bear formidable claws for digging burrows and gathering food. Hind limbs always have five digits while the number of forelimb digits varies (three to five) depending on the species. Naked-tailed (Cabassous) and giant armadillos (Priodontes maximus) possess an enlarged claw on the forelimb used to tear into termite and ant mounds. Wielding this large claw and rotating their carapaces back and forth enable these armadillos to escape predators by burying themselves within minutes.

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