Armadillos are an amazing group of animals that originated in South America. Armadillos are mammals, just like you. Contrary to what you may have heard, the armadillo is neither a rodent nor a marsupial, and they are not related to the opossum any more than you are. There are twenty different species of armadillos. They belong to the order Cingulata, family Dasypodidae. Their closest living relatives are sloths and anteaters. The most easily recognized feature of an armadillo is its shell. All armadillos have shells, made of true bone, that cover their backs. Most armadillos also have bony rings or plates that protect their tails. Because their backs are covered with bone, armadillos are not very flexible. Although one species — the three-banded armadillo — can roll itself into a ball, none of the others can do so. They rely on speed or their digging ability to escape danger.
Armadillos are built to dig. They have short, strong legs that are well suited to rapid digging, either for food or for shelter. Like their cousins, sloths (Order Pilosa, suborder Folivora) and anteaters (Order Pilosa, suborder Vermilingua), armadillos have strong claws. They use them to help in digging, or to tear apart rotting wood to find food. Armadillos eat a wide variety of different foods, ranging from insects to plants. Most armadillos eat small invertebrates like ants, beetles, and grubs. Many of them also eat bits of flesh from dead animals when they can find them. Most armadillos also eat plants, and some species — like the giant armadillo — can cause quite a bit of agricultural damage if they happen to wander into a farmer’s field. Because small bugs and soft plants are not too difficult to chew, armadillos do not have very complicated teeth. They have lost all but their molars over time, and the teeth that remain are peg-shaped. Armadillo teeth do not have the hard white enamel coating that protects the teeth of other mammals.
Many species of armadillo are endangered or threatened. Human encroachment, slash-and-burn farming, hunting, and deaths due to domestic dogs account for a large percentage of the problem. Of the twenty species of armadillo, only one — the nine-banded armadillo — appears to be increasing in number. In the last hundred years or so, the nine-banded armadillo has expanded its home range northward into the United States. Armadillos have moved as far west as Colorado and as far north as Illinois, with occasional sightings even farther north. Cold weather will eventually stop the spread of the armadillo, as they cannot tolerate even relatively short periods of extreme cold — they do not have large fat reserves to help insulate their bodies.
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