Armadillo. Its got a comical ring to it. It’s also a fitting name for a mammal with armoured plating protecting his little body and a range of other defences he deploys against the world of problems he faces. The fellow scuttles about with alarming pace amongst the overgrazed scrub of South America munching beetles, carrion and plants alike, and when alarmed, or presumably at other times when he is bored of all that scuttling about, he sits quite still and is completely indecipherable from the other dusty, round boulders that litter the plain. So what chance of seeing him?
Actually he’s not as good as he thinks he is. Although often regarded as nocturnal,the piche armadillo (Zaedyus pichiy) does rootle around during the day too, especially towards nightfall (crepuscular) and is at this time on an open stretch of road in the deserted Patagonian steppe that our paths crossed. If he gets an A* for his sense of smell, unfortunately he is a bit retarded in his sight and hearing. So merrily meandering across the road this “other-worldly” creature came, quite oblivious to the gaudy orange trailer and brightly clad runners bearing down on him. When he did eventually notice the two aghast and giddy humans ogling at him clawing for their camera, he panicked and used his most noble of tactics, defence trick number one – hide!
And in doing so he demonstrated that despite all his armoury and a body full of defence, he is perhaps not well equipped for the modern world. Let us look at those defences one by one. The armoured plates that clad his upper parts allow him to leap deep into the vicious thorny bush with no fear of personal damage, but far from predators’ reach. And, with a tasty flesh inside, he has plenty of those (once common, he is thought to have been extirpated from many parts of northern Argentina because of hunting by humans). His other defence is to pile headfirst into a shallow hole, using the barbed plates to effectively stick in place. Furthermore, as well as camouflage and strength he has that agility and speed and is said to spring into the air about 1 foot high when surprised, and then scarper! Finally, if all else fails he will readily embark on a dirty protest, soiling himself and all around if grabbed.
Jumping up when alarmed, to almost exactly to the height of car bumpers, is a particularly rubbish tactic if the thing that has startled you is made of steel and is traveling towards you at 60mph. Boing.
But today the Steppe looks a little different. Aside from his new human predators, his defences that evolved so beautifully for millenia don’t work so well in this unnatural world. Firstly consider the road. Jumping up when alarmed, to almost exactly to the height of car bumpers, is particularly rubbish tactic if the thing that has startled you is made of steel and is traveling towards you at 60mph. Boing. When an Argentinian settles down for a long drive along the famous Ruta 40, his mate’ gourd lodged neatly in the cup holder and stereo blasting, he immediately exposes our little friend to a whole world of woe and explains why our best sightings up to that point had been squished ones! Rolling up your legs and sitting tight won’t help much either mind you. So what about making for the bush, run! Problems again I’m afraid, with heavy overgrazing and fragile soils our little warrior can’t find the cover he needs, and so, for our lucky encounter, with us bearing over him, he went to hide. His head. That’s it. He did as the ostrich does and shoved only his head into the little shrub to satisfy his need for concealment, leaving his historic body sticking out! Great for photos mind you.
But fear not – whilst his form hasn’t caught up with the modern day world, at least that sweet little eye conceals a more shrewd psychology. When we talked with Frederico in the next village, an affable restauranteur, about the amazing encounter he explained to us that his kids love to try and catch them and bring them home to keep as a pet. ‘Dilla had the last laugh though, waiting to be taken to the car before unleashing his last ditch defence against his new urban life ahead – ejecting a torrent of slurry poop all over thoroughly soiling them, the car and everything within an impressive distance before being angrily ejected back to his solitary desert life by daddy, with a certain lightness to his step!
Interesting Armadillo facts:
Diet: insects and carrion, also succulent fruits and starchy tubers.
Body temp lower than most mammals, 32-36 degC.
Hind feet 5 toes, fore feet 3-5 depending on species.
Although terrestrial they can actually swim well!