Armadillos Everywhere All At Once

Get to know your new, heavily armored neighbors before they give you the skin-wasting disease formerly known as leprosy.

FOR THOSE WHO WORRY that loss of habitat, climate change, and Ginni Thomas are causing new waves of extinction, I have glad tidings: Armadillos are doing just fine. In fact, since crossing the Rio Grande in the 1850s, they’ve been expanding their territory steadily northward in the U.S., reaching all the way to Tennessee and North Carolina in the 1990s. Now they have been spotted in Virginia, where many of them voted in the most recent presidential election.

I know this (except that last bit, which I feel in my gut) because of a recent article in the National Geographic, about the 12-pound mammal’s wandering ways. It inspired me to do some digging, just like the ditch-dwelling armadillos do at night, before they conk out for a full sixteen hours.

There’s so much to admire in that.

And there’s more to love about armadillos, including…

Armadillos are the Michael Phelpses of armor-plated ditch sleepers. Not only are they good swimmers, they can hold their breath for up to six minutes, and stroll along river bottoms on the way to their ultimate destination. (Canada.)

Armadillos have impressive relatives. Glyptodants were Volkswagen-sized armadillos that provided our human ancestors with both food (two tons’ worth) and shelter (in their empty carapaces). That would be like eating a lobster dinner and then moving into the shell. Best of all possible worlds, really.

OK, there is at least one downside to armadillos. Leprosy has been canceled. Not the disease, but rather, that term for it, which The Lancet decried for “its use as a metaphor for all that is impure, immoral, and dreadful.” Now it’s called Hansen’s Disease, to honor the Norwegian scientist Gerhard Hansen, who in 1895 stuck an unwilling victim with a contaminated knife, to see if he could induce the skin-wasting disease.

Serves him right to stick him with the stigma, now.

What does this have to do with armadillos? Evidently they have a very low body temperature, and are thus excellent hosts for the bacterium that causes leprosy That Scumbag Hansen’s Disease. So they could in fact infect you with it as they make their way north. No armadillo-liver seviche for you, (a popular dish in Brazil, evidently) no matter how tempting it may seem.

Before you blame armadillos for being Hansen enablers, consider this: They may have initially contracted the disease from 15th century explorers, who carried the infection to the New World. Now the ‘dillos are spreading it right back to us, which is only fair.

OK, back to the great things about armadillos.

They taste like chicken! Which suggests a take-an-armadillo-to-dinner food-marketing campaign.

Plus they’re damned fun to draw! Why else would I have devoted and entire newsletter to armadillos?

Many thanks to Walt Hickey, who tipped me off to the armadillo migration in his uproarious, informative newsletter Numlock News. Tune in every morning for Walt’s batches of weird facts and freaky analysis that you didn’t realize you needed to know until he told you. Nine out of ten armadillos check it every day.

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