Tag Archives: armadillos

Introducing Dasypus novemcinctus


We don’t get too many cloudy days in Texas compared to other places, which means that we cherish the few that we get. One of the best surprises comes when the cloud cover is particularly thick, such as it was last Friday morning, and more nocturnal denizens don’t get the memo that they need to go to bed. This means that on my morning bike ride to the Day Job, I see all sorts of interesting things. Screech owls catching one last drink from a puddle formed by lawn sprinklers. An especially fat opossum checking to see if someone left cat food out on the back porch. Raccoons caught up trees in road medians, as they realize they can’t get across the road until after rush hour traffic ends. Very occasionally, a lone coyote or grey fox sitting in the middle of a field, watching the sun come up. Very, very occasionally, we even get one of Texas’s great symbols digging in lawns and weed patches, slurping up grubs and worms in the freshly wet and cool dirt.

Upright armadillo

While the nine-banded armadillo isn’t unique to Texas, it’s lived here long enough to qualify as a native. The armadillo is currently the only member of the Edentata left in the continental United States, although it used to have quite a bit of company with anteaters, ground sloths, and glyptodonts during the last ice age. In the Anthropocene Epoch, it’s done quite well, even with the addition of cars, dogs, and fire ants.


Now, I could bring up all of the usual points shared with people who have never seen an armadillo in the wild. I could bring up that armadillos always have four pups in a litter, and those four are genetically identical. I could note that armadillos are the only mammals besides humans to carry and transmit leprosy. I could hint exactly how flexible that armor can be, especially relating the time I found one in my back yard, squeezing underneath the fence door like a cat. I might even relate how their eyesight is so poor that they’re nearly totally blind, but their hearing is so acute that if they let humans see and even get close to them, it’s because they simply don’t care. What is particularly noteworthy, though, is that they’re fast and incredibly nimble for something in a shell. Every time I encounter one, I rediscover how fast: the first time I saw one in the wild, nearly thirty years ago, I learned that their main defense is jumping as much as a meter high. I learned this as I tried to capture one and the little monster nearly knocked out my front teeth in the process. The night before I took these photos, I learned it again when I accidentally spooked one on my bicycle, and it paced my bike for a full minute before I slowed down and let it pass.

The real sign of how fast these guys can be? This one was moving so quickly while foraging that I didn’t even get the chance to adjust my camera to decent settings. At least, that’s my excuse, and I’ll blame the armadillo instead of my horrible photography skills.

As far as other notes on armadillos, most guides make noises about how they’ll curl into a ball, but they’re usually too busy running to consider doing something like that. What’s usually left out, though, is that they have an absolute addiction to beer, the cheaper the better. Hence, some longtime Texans may remember this set of ads from “the national beer of Texas”, involving a giant armadillo that ripped delivery trucks in half:

Even under the best conditions, the little American earth pigs ultimately realize that the day is getting long, and it’s time to go to bed. For armadillos, that’s usually in thick tangles, among greenbriar vines and other obstructions, and they dig tunnels just deep enough for them to hide their vulnerable parts. Just like a cat, when they’re done, as this one was, there’s only one view you get of them as they say goodbye.

Armadillo butt

Tales From The Ranch: Spot the Horsecrippler

As mentioned several months back, I’ve become extremely fond of the West Texas barrel cactus Echinocactus texensis. It’s not impressive, like many other species of barrel cactus. In fact, the reason why one of its common names is “horsecrippler” is that between blending into the local soil and growing in areas with lots of grassy cover, only two circumstances allow most people or animals to see one before they step on it. If the cactus isn’t blooming or bearing fruit, they’re nearly impossible to see without a very careful view of the locale.

Don’t believe me? Let’s play the latest Triffid Ranch game, “Spot the Horsecrippler”. Within the photo below are fourE. texensis in plain sight. Can you spot them? (I’ll even give a hint: two are directly in the center of the photo, one is up and to the right, while the last is over on the upper left.)

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 1

Okay, to be fair, we’re looking at a smaller photo, with standard Web-ready resolution. Let’s go for a much closer view. Spot any of them now?

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 2

If you didn’t spot any, congratulations. You now see why these cactus can be dangerous to humans and animals. If you did, I know a few red-tailed hawks who want to steal your eyes and use them for themselves. The problem isn’t just that horsecripplers are down low. It’s that they flatten out over the ground, and with a bit of grass and some faded flower blooms, they’re almost invisible.

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 3

As mentioned before, at two times of the year is E. texensis easily visible, and for the same reasons. The blooms are gigantic compared to the cactus’s diameter, all the better for bees and other pollinators to see. The other time is when the fruit ripens, so it catches the eye of birds and other-color-seeking herbivores. Between the color and the scent, the fruit attracts everything from lizards to mice to pigs, and the seeds (roughly the size and consistency of buckshot) either scatter as the fruit is eaten or in the diner’s feces. Either way, after the fruit is gone, the cactus goes back to complete, welcome obscurity.

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 4

This isn’t to say that all E. texensis are, and forgive the pun, wallflowers. Occasionally, one comes across mutants with attention issues, growing well above the height of their neighbors. In garden and container environments, where nutrients and water are much more available than in the wild, horsecripplers will grow much larger and rounder, but not necessarily taller. This one is definitely E. texensis, based on the spine pattern and shape, but it may be interesting to see what happens with subsequent generations over the next few centuries. (Considering how slowly horsecripplers grow, this will have to be a multigenerational effort. Most of the cactus in these photos are at least 40 to 50 years old, and many out on the ranch may be two centuries old. Time for more research.)

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 5

All of this leads to speculation with, to paraphrase Joe Bob Briggs, absolutely no facts to get in the way of the story. Most smaller cactus species go for either cryptic coloration or impressive spines, and rarely do they go with both. If anything, most barrel cactus species herald their spines to encourage animals to walk and seek food elsewhere. Horsecripplers not only flatten out, but they also put down an impressive taproot to keep them anchored, and nothing alive today other than humans has the determination and the apparatus necessary to pull one out of the ground to eat it. What I wonder is if some form of the Pleistocene megafauna that used to wander this area during the last big glaciation had a taste for horsecrippler ancestors, deliberately seeking them out in grassland and pulling them up. If this was something that both had the time to dig up the cactus and had strong enough claws to scrape out the hard soil underneath, it explains why horsecripplers have such strong spines. Horses and cattle wouldn’t waste their time trying to chew on one, but what about ground sloths and glyptodonts?

Ah, now there’s an image you weren’t expecting to get from a gardening blog, were you? Naturally, this is all pure speculation based on E. texensis structure, and it can’t be proved without examples of glyptodont scat that show bits of chewed-up horsecrippler. The image, though, sticks. Texas gardeners already have enough of a problem with nine-banded armadillos digging up lawns and flowerbeds in the night in search of grubs and insects. Now just picture a vegetarian armadillo the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, galumphing into your back yard in a mad search for native cactus. Just remember: you have to sleep sometime.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn: Autumn Edition

Most people don’t think of North Texas as a place running rampant with autumn color. We definitely don’t have anything to compare with the fiery sugar maples of Vermont or the canary ginkgos of Oregon, but we get a lot of interesting pastels. Get up high, as in the top floor of an office building or landing at DFW Airport, and you might be surprised at how much color other than “brown and dead” we get that isn’t easily visible from the ground.

Every once in a while, though, the place will surprise you. Halloween 1993 came in with record subfreezing temperatures, so we learned how many of our indigenous trees change color if given the opportunity. Crape myrtles, for instance, shift to a brilliant Tyrolean purple when hit with a good stout freeze before the leaves fall for the season. In tough years, though, sometimes the beauty can stun you, especially if you get up before dawn to look at the area first thing in the morning.

Texas-style autumn color

This, by the way, was taken from right on the border of Garland (yes, the Garland, Texas mocked at the beginning of the movie Zombieland) and Richardson, right on the edge of one of Garland’s many parks. Between the autumn foliage and the occasional armadillo scampering toward the woods, it’s sometimes worth the effort to get up early.

Closeup of autumn color