The Sewanee network of road-kill aficionados (thank you, Rachel), pointed me to this freshly killed nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) on the side of Rte 41A, outside Stillpoint (a name that, for this little animal, came with uninflected irony).
The “armored” skin of the armadillo is tessellated with striking patches of contrasting color. These patterns are made from little bony plates covered with leathery skin.
Armadillos are a recent arrival here in Sewanee and are still quite uncommon, although they are becoming abundant in the surrounding valleys. The first one was seen here about ten years ago on Gudger Rd. I then found one on the main highway through town, the first record in Sewanee itself. This latter specimen was also road-killed and is now in the mammal collection at the University of Tennessee. This week’s find is interesting because it comes at the start of winter. All the previous sightings have been in the warm months, suggesting perhaps that armadillos are moving up here from the valley in summer, but are not established year-round. Well, at least one made it to nearly the winter solstice.
Armadillos are champion diggers. Apparently, they can ruin a nice vegetable garden in one night. They excavate burrows to sleep in during the day and the entrance holes to these burrows are perfectly sized to catch unwary human feet, plunging unfortunate walkers into leg-twisting tunnels. The armadillo’s feet are well-equipped for this task:
But despite their tendency to dig where we don’t want them to, we should regard them with some awe, not with irritated condescension. They are members of a wonderfully strange group of mammals, the Xenarthrans, that originally evolved in South America. When the land bridge formed between North and South America, about three to five million years ago, these animals moved north, colonizing what is now the United States. This Sewanee armadillo had come a long way. Other members of the Xenarthra include additional armadillo species (incl. “pink fairy armadillo” and “screaming hairy armadillo” — did someone say “Muppets”?), sloths, and anteaters.
Is the resemblance to E. H. Shepard’s drawings of Piglet coincidental?