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12 Odd Facts and Stories About Armadillos

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Armadillos are small New World mammals often called speed bumps for their habit of crossing roads too slowly, and they carry their own suits of armor around with them. And that's just the beginning of what makes these animals really, really interesting.

1. The name armadillo came from the Spanish terms meaning “little armored one.” They eat grubs and insects, small reptiles, worms, and sometimes plants. They have a keen sense of smell but poor eyesight, which is common among animals that dig in the dirt.

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2. You can eat armadillo, called “possum on the half-shell,” or, during the Great Depression, “Hoover hogs.” They are said to taste somewhat like pork. Find some recipes for armadillo meat at Eat the Weeds. 

Armadillo Species

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3. The giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus) is the biggest species of armadillo, growing up to 39 inches long.

Cliff via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

4. The pink fairy armadillo (Chlamyphorus truncatus) is the smallest of the 20 or so armadillo species, growing to only about six inches long! It is found in central Argentina. These tiny ‘dillos have pink armor and feet, and fluffy white fur. By the way, most armadillos can grow hair, particularly on their undersides, but most have sparse, spiky hair. 

Sandstein via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

5. The screaming hairy armadillo (Chaetophractus vellerosus) can be found in Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia. As its name might suggest, the animal has long hair growing out from between its armor scales and screams loudly when threatened.

Sandstein via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

6. The Brazilian three-banded armadillo (Tolypeutes tricinctus) and the southern three-banded armadillo (Tolypeutes matacus) are the only armadillo species that can roll themselves up in a ball. Both are found in South America. It had to have been one of these species that inspired Rudyard Kipling's Just So story "The Beginning of the Armadillos,” in which Kipling wrote that armadillos were created when a turtle and a hedgehog taught each other how to defend themselves by growing armor and rolling up in a ball.

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7. The three-banded armadillo was the mascot of the 2014 World Cup tournament in Brazil. Because it curls up in a ball, see?

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8. The nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) is the only species common in the U.S. It ranges throughout the American South, from Texas to the Atlantic and as far north as Nebraska. It is also common in Mexico. Though their name would suggest otherwise, nine-banded armadillos can have anywhere from seven to 11 bands in their armor.

NASA/Ken Thornsley via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

9. Nine-banded armadillos always give birth to identical quadruplets. That’s a litter of four developed from a single fertilized egg.  

Armadillos in the News

10. The armor that an armadillo carries around is tough and then some. In April of this year, Larry McElroy fired a 9mm pistol at an armadillo in his yard in Georgia. The bullet ricocheted off the animal’s armor and into a mobile home belonging to his mother-in-law, 100 yards away. The bullet went into the back of the recliner McElroy’s mother-in-law was sitting in. She was taken to a hospital with minor injuries; the armadillo did not survive the encounter. Then, in July, a man in Cass County, Texas, attempted to shoot an armadillo and ended up shooting himself in the head when the bullet ricocheted back at him. Or at least, those were the stories both shooters told the police.

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11. Armadillos are the only animals besides humans that are affected by Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy. Nine people in Florida have tested positive for leprosy this year; all report encounters with armadillos. However, it’s not a situation that should cause panic. There are normally 150 to 200 cases in the U.S. every year, and Hansen’s disease is quite treatable if caught early. There are also millions of armadillo encounters, but since 95 percent of people are already immune to leprosy, the odds of catching it from an armadillo are small.

12. Armadillos may be brave and determined, but they aren’t known for their intelligence.

This critter in Jackson, Mississippi, recently found himself in a deep, underfilled water fountain outside City Hall. The videographer was rather far away, so the camera doesn’t stay steady. He manages to get out, but can he stay out?

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View
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Google

Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.
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Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]

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