Healthy baby armadillos are a hot commodity for researchers for a couple of reasons: The armadillo typically gives birth to identical quadruplets, and it’s the only mammal other than man that’s susceptible to Hansen’s disease, the bacterial infection also known as leprosy. It’s leprosy research, being conducted primarily by Dr. Richard Truman at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Hansen’s Disease Research Program at the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine in Baton Rouge, that gets most of Knight’s babies these days; this year, Knight delivered nearly three dozen to Baton Rouge.
Knight, who has captured armadillos at home (on the “frontier of the armadillo range”) and also farther south, in the Mississippi Delta region, says there seem to be physical and behavioral differences based on where the creatures live. “They’re much wilder here, and harder to handle and harder to catch,” he says. “And the adults tend to be larger.” The “frontier” armadillos, he suggests, may be a hardier, more adventurous sort than their southern kin.
Knight and Withnell began raising baby armadillos at the suggestion of one of his graduate-school mentors who wanted to do work on body-temperature regulation. Armadillos were ideal test subjects because the siblings in each litter are genetic matches. The couple found that the existing literature on raising armadillos wasn’t very useful; at first, for example, they couldn’t get mothers to eat and had to experiment until Withnell figured out that adding earthworms made the chow tastier. It also took some experience before they were able to recognize when a mother likely posed a threat to her newborns and the youngsters needed to be separated and tube-fed. Some years proved disappointing; some, like this year, were a surprise: Of 11 pregnant females in 2011, they ended up with nine litters and 33 surviving babies.
When they first started raising them, they remodeled their attached garage to hold them in, but the noisy animals kept them awake. Knight and Withnell now have a separate building — “the Armadillarium,” quips Withnell — to house the animals for about five to six months. Knight’s students are encouraged to do “noninvasive” research on the animals — one, for example, devised a breast pump to research armadillo milk. The student was the first to milk an armadillo, Knight believes; Knight was the first to taste it. (Withnell had a taste, too: “It wasn’t bad. Nice and creamy.”)
Although they’ve been at it for a long time, Knight and Withnell still get a kick out of raising armadillos. “The babies have fun instinctive behaviors,” Knight says. “They’re really fun to watch catching worms when they’re young. They get really excited when they find one — they slurp it down like a thrashing piece of spaghetti.”
Usually by July, though, the fun has subsided. “We get a lot of entertainment out of it — until July,” Knight says. “After July, it doesn’t matter what they do; it’s not amusing anymore.”
That’s the thing about armadillos: They’re fascinating and weird and even iconic. But cuddly and lovable? Not so much.
Loughry, one of the nation’s top armadillo researchers, laughs when asked if he has any affection for armadillos.
“I used to work on prairie dogs,” he says. “Prairie dogs are charismatic. They’re fun. You wouldn’t mind having one around as a pet or having it around the house. I like armadillos, but [as for] whether I’d want to be around them all the time — probably not. They’d don’t have a lot of personality. In a lot of cases, when people study animals, they tend to give the animals names. Armadillos don’t inspire that. We just give them numbers — and that seems to suffice.”
Dr. Joshua Nixon, currently a research scientist studying obesity at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Health Care System, has a slightly different take. Since 1995 — when as an undergrad at Michigan State University, he launched a website devoted exclusively to armadillos — Nixon has been frequently cited in news accounts on all matters armadillo, even though he readily admits he’s an enthusiast, not an expert.
Nixon points out that while the armadillo is a primitive mammal, it has managed to colonize a large chunk of the Americas in a relatively short period of time.
“The success of the armadillo,” he says, “is in some ways a story of obstinacy. They might simply be too stubborn to admit that they are outclassed by more advanced mammals, so they carry on in spite of their disadvantages.
“It’s a good lesson for all of us to keep at heart: You needn’t be the best to succeed, you simply need to refuse to give up trying.”