Sometimes you look at a creature and wonder how it evolved into the beast it is. The kangaroo and platypus come to mind, but they’re Australian, and who can account for animal adaptations down under? The critter I’m most curious about is one I see squashed all too often on the Texas and Oklahoma Interstates--the armadillo. Not long ago, I spied an immigrant armadillo flattened on I-70 in Trego County.
Just as African killer bees keep moving north from South America, it appears armadillos are marching to add to the highway death toll in our region. These elliptical fellows must not know about our winters, or they’d keep their hairy little scutes in warmer climates.
Perhaps they should reconsider these migrations since farmers and ranchers love armadillos about as much as they love prairie dogs. Despite their lack of popularity with agricultural folks, these prehistoric beasties won my heart years ago when I discovered their ability to leap vertically up to six feet straight up from a standing position.
My introduction came as I drove down an isolated highway late at night. A bizarre creature with a funny snout and ovoid body on short legs with long claws waddled across the road. I thought aliens had invaded. A newcomer to Oklahoma, I’d seen armadillos only in magazines. The vision before me compelled me to slow to a crawl.
For lack of definitive gender identification, I’ll call this guy a “he.” Thinking he would hurry across the road as I coasted, I decelerated even more. This had a similar effect upon the varmint. Only he just stopped like he was stuck in tar. I didn’t want to squash him, so I halted as well.
Thank goodness, I had my brights on so I got the full effect of his antics. That armadillo leapt straight up--a good foot above the hood of my 66 Plymouth. Headlights reflecting from his eyeballs added an eerie component to his comic jump. With that football-shaped body and those four-clawed feet angling out, he hovered like a basketball player hanging in for a tough lay up. Once more alien invaders crossed my mind.
Under different circumstances that armadillo would have ended up as road kill. Because he surprised me on a little used road where I could slow down to ogle strange creatures, his jump simply surprised the two of us with no damage done and a new fan won. Had we been on Interstate, his timing would’ve led to an abrupt and messy end.
I’ve never seen an armadillo since that doesn’t trigger that memory. Mr. Been around since Prehistoric Times charmed me and began a love affair that lasts even today.
Since that first meeting, I’ve collected nearly 40 armadillo statues and figurines. Strangers spot the creatures in my curio cabinet and ask what I might’ve asked nearly 30 years ago. What’s that strange thing? That opens the door to revealing odd facts about this New World invader.
The nine-banded armadillo living in the southern United States has unique characteristics that enable it to survive its slow march toward Canada. Besides the obvious physical adaptation of the hair covered “shell” that protects soft parts of its body and its astounding jumping talent, the armadillo is a reproductive marvel.
Like some marsupials, female armadillos can delay development of fertilized eggs until optimum conditions exist. Nine-banded varieties usually bear four same-sex young—identical quadruplets in other words. According to James Michener’s book Texas, the female determines which gender she will bear. I haven’t verified that fact, but if true, then these little armored ones have abilities some would pay millions to share.
Despite ranchers’ opinions about armadillos, I like them. I like anything that scares predators with a jump and a funny face. I like a critter that can choose the gender of its young and when it delivers those babies.
I want another chance to watch an armadillo levitate and hover. However, I don’t want to meet on Interstate. I want both of us to survive unharmed.