Friday, July 25, 2008

Armadillos in the Swamp

Our blog service was done yesterday.

Yesterday, Francis Beidler Forest swamp stompers completed our boundary line marking across Four Holes Swamp.  After the 1.5-mile trip using a compass, Global Positioning System (GPS) unit and pre-loaded waypoints, we were appoximately 50 feet south of the iron pipe marking the cross-swamp corner.  Not bad, especially since the boundary is internal to the Francis Beidler Forest property and for our reference only.  Although it took us 5 1/2 hours (including 30 minutes for lunch) to reach the east side of the swamp, it only took one hour to make the trip back to the truck on the west side of the swamp.  We did not retrace our path, but instead pulled up the coordinates of the truck (prior planning prevents poor performance, aka the 5 p's) and walked a straight line to the vehicle.

On our way into the swamp, we came across a family of Nine-banded Armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus) near their burrow.  The burrow is on a neighbor's property just before the drop into the low, wet area of the swamp.  Armadillos may sleep up to 16 hours a day and forage mainly in the early morning.  We saw an adult and four juveniles, but they did not see us due to their poor eyesight.  They did eventually detect our presence by smell though we were much more ripe on the return trip to the truck.  The soil around the den was turned up from the armadillos' foraging with their snouts for grubs, ants, termites, beetles and other arthropods.  They can also use their powerful legs and claws to expose a meal.  With a low metabolism and limited fat stores, the armadillo is highly susceptible to cool weather. 

There are 20 species of armadillos in Latin America, but only the nine-banded armadillo ranges into the United States.  The armadillo is named from the Spanish "little armored one" and is the only mammal to possess the bony plates over its head, back, legs and tail.  These bony plates do not harden until the animal has reached adult size.  However, the bony plates are heavy and cause the animal to sink when in water.  When faced with a narrow water crossing, the armadillo will hold its breath and walk across the bottom of the stream or creek.  For larger bodies of water, the armadillo will fill its stomach to twice its size and swim bouyantly on the surface.  It will take several hours for the armadillo to expel the excess air from its body.

Armadillos always give birth to quadruplets, which we observed.  A single egg is fertilized and the embryo divides in two before each embryo again divides in two.  Thus, each young armadillo is genetically identical to its three sisters or three brothers.

As if not odd enough already, the armadillo is the only mammal beside humans that carries leprosy.  Hmmm...might be a way to defeat the dreaded chiggers, but the treatment appears to be much worse than anything the chiggers can dish out!

Image from US Fish and Wildlife

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