Sometimes you look at a creature and wonder how it evolved. Kangaroos and platypus come to mind, but they’re Australian. The critter I’m most curious about is one frequently seen squashed on 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 invading armadillos add to regional highway death tolls. 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 folk, these prehistoric beasties won my heart years ago when I discovered their ability to vertically leap six feet from a standing position.
This introduction occurred as I drove down an isolated road late at night. A bizarrely snouted creature supported on a short-legged and long clawed-ovoid body waddled across the road. My first thought was 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 further. This had a similar effect upon the varmint. Only he stopped like he was stuck in tar. I didn’t want to squash him, so I halted as well.
Thank goodness my brights were 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-shape and those clawed feet sticking out at right angles, he hovered like a basketball player going for a tough lay up. Once more, aliens crossed my mind.
Under different circumstances that armadillo would have ended up as road kill. Because he surprised me on a county road that permitted me to ogle strange creatures, his jump simply surprised the two of us. No damage occurred and these beasts won a new fan. Had we been on Interstate, this would’ve been messy.
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 today.
Since that first meeting, I’ve collected over 50 armadillo figurines. Strangers spot them in my curio cabinet and ask what I might’ve asked nearly 40 years ago– “What’s that?” —opening the door to share odd facts about this New World trespasser.
Nine-banded armadillos living in the southern United States have 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 body parts and its jumping talent, armadillos are reproductive marvels.
Like some marsupials, female armadillos are able to delay fertilized egg development until optimum conditions exist. This species almost always bears four same-sex young—identical quadruplets in other words. According to James Michener’s Texas, females determine which gender they’ll bear. I haven’t verified this, but if true, these armored ones possess abilities some would pay millions to share.
Despite ranchers’ opinions about armadillos, I like them. I like anything that scares predators with a leap and a funny face. I like a critter that can select the gender of its offspring and when it delivers them.
I want another chance to watch an armadillo levitate and hover. However, I don’t want to meet on Interstate. I want both parties to survive unscathed.
Native Kansan Karen Madorin is a local writer and retired teacher who loves sharing stories about places, people, critters, plants, food, and history of the High Plains.