• Image about Jack Mayer
Mirella Nania

It may be small-brained and shortsighted, but the armadillo has managed to take over most of the Americas.

Only one armadillo showed up for last year’s World Famous Armadillo Festival in Hamburg, Ark., and it couldn’t have cared less.

After a ceremonial weigh-in and photo shoot with the reigning Teen Miss Armadillo (a local high school beauty sporting rolled-up capri jeans, a strapless leopard-print blouse, flip-flops, a tiara and an expression that says “I’ve been to better places”), the creature was released in the designated “racetrack,” a makeshift chicken-wire enclosure, where it immediately began to nose around for bugs and grubs.
  • Image about Jack Mayer
Nine-Banded Armadillo
Olaf Broders Nature Photography/Getty Images

Hamburg, about 20 miles from the Louisiana border, has held an armadillo festival each May for more than 40 years. It’s a typical small-town affair — music, contests, carnival rides, lawn mower racing, cotton candy — but if your goal is to see armadillos, you best skip the trip. Some years there hasn’t been a single entry. This year’s unlucky contestant, apparently a slacker who couldn’t get away, was nabbed in a carport by an area resident who said that after the “race,” she hoped festival organizers would rid her of her critter.

Area residents can be forgiven if they’ve grown ambivalent about armadillos; there are so many around these days, they’ve long lost their novelty. As ubiquitous as the creatures are now — some estimates put their number as high as 50 million in the United States — most people know them primarily as roadkill. With their distinctive armor that looks like a turtle’s shell and a tendency to greet their maker on their backs — legs akimbo, seemingly asleep — there’s no confusing these bizarre mammals with, say, dead squirrels or raccoons.

Armadillos don’t do well on highways. Dim-witted and shortsighted, they wander across the pavement — sometimes to feed on carrion, sometimes to get to the other side — and tend not to notice a vehicle barreling down on them until it’s too late. It doesn’t help that they often jump several feet when startled. It’s an instinct that served the armadillo well when an ocelot was pouncing; it’s not so useful when a tractor-trailer is rumbling overhead — the poor animals get bounced down the highway until they can bounce no more.

Dr. Jack Mayer, a wildlife ecologist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina, remembers visiting an armadillo researcher at the Universidad Nacional de Asunción in Paraguay in the mid-1970s, where he witnessed jumping armadillos firsthand for the first time.

“All of a sudden, these tan volleyballs start going up all over the place,” Mayer recalls. “It was one of the most surrealistic experiences I’ve ever had.”