(Week eight is another double-feature! Click here for more lemur stories.)
If one were to plot my encounters with armadillos on a graph, it would look like an exponential curve. Growing up, armadillos and I didn't share the same climate; too cold and too far north. After I moved to Texas - a place one might reasonably expect to see legions of them (they are one of the state animals) - the only examples of armadillos I saw were roadkill. Then, a year or so after moving to Georgia, I was relaying that very fact over the phone when I looked out of my window to see - speak of the Devil - an armadillo in my own front yard! Now, on St. Catherines, they're as common as squirrels in Central Park. Most of the sources I've consulted report that these little armored animals are nocturnal, but I see them at all hours of the day. They invariably appear hard at work, nose to the ground, shuffling along, and hardly aware of anything but their own earnest business (I often imagine them with tiny briefcases). Instead of planning corporate takeovers, however, they are hard at work hunting for grubs, ants, termites, and worms. When times get tough, they may even snack on small reptiles and amphibians.
Apparently, the armadillos appeared in greater numbers around here after the hurricane. I've been trying to figure out why that might be. It could be that, as the storm pulled up trees by their roots, the critters that armadillos feed on were sent scurrying. In nature, there are many examples of plant and animal populations that explode (not literally) when food is abundant. There are many species of armadillos, but the ones who live north of the Rio Grande are called nine-banded armadillos. These guys only take four months to grow from conception to birth and have four babies at a time. So, by the time I arrived on the island, there could have been four times as many of them as there were in October. That's assuming there was some kind of armadillo love fest. But, that wouldn't jive with their normal July-August mating season.
Some scientists in Mexico did a study of wildlife affected by Hurricane Dean in 2007. The armadillo was the only animal whose numbers increased after the storm and they thought it might be because of their diet. Essentially, hurricanes tear up the landscape, leaving lots of dead plants around. Insects and fungi like to consume dead plants and multiply because they have plenty to eat. Because armadillos eat insects and fungi, their numbers go up too. So, that's similar to my initial thought, but without the love fest. I think uprooted trees might have another effect as well. Armadillos use their long claws for digging and one animal can have up to twelve different burrows. Maybe the underground destruction caused all of the armadillo busy bodies to have to get busy digging new holes for their bodies.
I'll probably never solve the mystery of the armadillo population explosion. I'd need data from before and after the hurricane, I'd need a much better understanding of armadillo physiology, and I'd need a helluva lot more time on my hands. So, for now I'll just be delighted to see a bunch of critters that remind me of hairy old businessmen running around the island. I even got to play with one the other day. Creeping up slowly on it, I expected it to dash off. Instead, it let me pet it for a moment (I had gloves on - leprosy donchaknow) before it startled me with a great big hop. The little guy ran a few feet away and turned around and came straight back to me! This repeated a few times and I could hardly stop laughing. But, I haven't seen my armadillo friend since, so the experience must not have been as fun for it as it was me.
(Special thanks go to Bethany Hull for the use of her notes on armadillos.)