Patagonia exudes a sense of timelessness, not only in the vast otherworldliness of its landscape, but also in the bizarre antiquity of some of its native species. Take the Hairy Armadillo, for one, one of the stranger looking residents of the Patagonian steppe for over 60 million years.
The word armadillo is Spanish for “little armored one, ” a fitting description for this mammal’s most distinctive feature. Their protective armor is made of dermal bone, which is covered in small overlapping scales. It resembles the armor of a medieval knight, defending the possessor against potential predators or enemies. The armor is the Armadillo’s main defense mechanism. The animal recedes into itself when threatened—but must take care not to expose its soft, fur-covered underside.
Besides their distinctive tough armor, the Hairy Armadillo’s other survival tactics include fleeing and digging. At first glance, the ‘little armored one’ doesn’t look built for speed, but they have been known to run away from most predators – usually into thorny bushes where their shells will protect them and predators can’t follow. In addition, the animals have extremely sharp claws, classifying them as prolific diggers who at times will dig themselves to safety. They also use these digging abilities to find foot–their diet consists of insects, grubs, and other invertebrates–and to build burrows for homes.
Surprising for an animal of the arid steppe, armadillos have a knack for swimming. They have a strong dog-paddle stroke and can swim deep underwater, holding their breath for 4-6 minutes at a time. Despite their armored backs, they make themselves buoyant by storing large gulps of air in their intestines, enabling them to float across streams and rivers.
Because water is not a barrier for Armadillos, they have expanded their territory to various regions throughout the Americas. They range as far north as Nebraska and as far south as Patagonia. Another factor that facilitates their broad home range is their ability to delay implantation of a fertilized egg during stressful events. A delay of up to four months is common. This reproductive tactic makes for easy colonizing in varying environments. A female has a litter from one to eight offspring, all with a mid-level survival rate. Parents must safeguard their young for their first weeks of life, when the infants’ armor remains delicate.
Prehistoric in appearance yet impressively resilient, armadillos frequently scurry and burrow in the eastern parts of the future Patagonia National Park. We often catch sight of one while driving, and stop to laugh at the antics of this graceless yet tenacious animal. We hope to see this 60 million year old species thrive in the Park—and, with luck, survive for another 60 million years.