The giant armadillo is the largest of the living armadillo species and can be found all over South America with its habitat ranging as far as Argentina. At first glance it is easily one of the most beautiful animals walking this planet. Unfortunately, it might not be walking around among us in the future because it is considered to be a vulnerable species. It is known for being a solitary animal that mainly preys on termites and ants. As a matter of fact, giant armadillos have been known to consume the entire population of a termite mound. Giant armadillos also prey on larvae as well as larger creatures, including snakes, plants and spiders.
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Physical Features of the Giant Armadillo
As the largest of all living armadillo species on the planet, these animals can measure up to 1 meter in length, exclusive of their tails. The tail adds another 50 centimeters to their length, so simply put you are dealing with one big animal. On average they weigh around 33 kilograms, but some reports have them weighing as much as 55 kilograms or even more.
It also holds this distinction of having more teeth than any other mammal on Earth – 100 to be exact! It also has large claws that it uses to dig through dens while searching for food. Being the excellent diggers that they are, giant armadillos also use their claws to dig burrows in forests and scrubs. They normally come out of their burrows during the night to scourge for food.
Unlike its smaller cousins, the giant armadillo doesn’t curl into a ball whenever it is being threatened. It protects itself by quickly digging a hole into the ground and stays there exposing only its armor-plated back.
Behavioral Characteristics of the Giant Armadillo
Giant armadillos tend to remain in one area for a few weeks at a time before moving on to another one in search of new territory and more food. They are not territorial animals and will usually ignore any other giant armadillos that invade their space.
Despite their massive size and prehistoric look, giant armadillos are still regarded as one of the Earth’s most mysterious creatures. Scientists find it hard to observe them because of their nocturnal habits and solitary nature. We have yet to see baby giant armadillos in the wild, thus making this species’ natural breeding habitats and behavior unknown.
Females are known to only bear one baby at a time, although there have been some rare occurrences where twins are born. The youngsters will stick with their mothers for at least half a year, nursing throughout this whole period before finally venturing out on their own.
Giant armadillos reach sexual maturity after one year and can live up to 15 years in the wild.
Where Are They Found?
The giant armadillo’s main territory is in Brazil, but they have also been found scattered across the rest of South America, including Columbia, Paraguay, Argentina, Venezuela, French Gulana, and Bolivia. They can live in a diverse range of habitats, but are usually found in areas that have a healthy termite population.
Threats to the Species
Even though the giant armadillo is a timid creature and prefers to avoid human contact, the survival of this species is being threatened thanks in large part to excessive hunting. Humans value their meat and the armadillo’s thick armor is simply no match for a bullet from a rifle. Since giant armadillos are slow moving creatures they become easy targets for hunters.
These animals are also being captured by those who wish to sell them illegally in the exotic animal market. They don’t last very long when put in cages and often die while being transported. Habitat loss is also another major factor that has contributed to the dangers that the species has been facing.
Despite its wide range, the species itself is locally rare and its population is likely to be impacted by all of the exploitation it is facing. Some experts estimate that the giant armadillo population has experienced a significant population decline of 30 to 50 percent within the last three decades. This trend will likely continue without any intervention.
Some farmers have also been found to kill giant armadillos as they have been blamed as a nuisance to their crops. The species was put on the endangered list back in 1976.
One of the earliest known cousins of the modern day giant armadillo is the glyptodon. This prehistoric giant armadillo once roamed the Earth during the Pleistocene epoch. Studies of recovered fossils and remains of this extinct beast have revealed that it was roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle albeit flatter.
Its name “glyptodon” means grooved or carved tooth, and was coined by Sir Woodbine Parish, a British scientist who had sent fossils of the creature to Europe. Like its modern day counterpart, the prehistoric giant armadillo once populated South America. Several remains and fossils have been found in Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina.
Some recent studies and evidence suggest that prehistoric humans had driven glyptodonts to extinction. Hunters during this age might have used the shells as shelter during severe weather conditions.
Armadillo vs. Pangolin
One animal that looks somewhat similar to the armadillo is the pangolin. Note that these are two completely different animals. However, they do share some similarities such as the way they defend themselves against predators and other dangers. Pangolins roll themselves up into a ball when sleeping exposing their armored backs to protect them from any predators.
Pangolins are also native to Asia and Africa whereas armadillos can be found only in the Americas, with the giant armadillo being native to South America. While armadillos prefer to live in warm and temperate climates, pangolins thrive in hot, tropical climates.
The pangolin’s armor is made up of large keratin scales that cover up its skin while that of the armadillo’s is more of a bony shield covering up its body. Both are nocturnal creatures and sleep during the day with the only difference being the pangolin curling up into a ball on the ground while the armadillo sleeps in burrows. Both animals also have a craving for ants, but the giant armadillo has a more varied diet as it also loves to eat termites, small snakes and lizards.
Another unfortunate characteristic that both animals share is being listed as endangered. The survival of both species is being threatened with the pangolin being aggressively hunted by humans for its meat and scales.
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Giant Armadillos – Ecosystem Engineer
Even though the giant armadillos basically look like their prehistoric counterparts, they still remain one of the world’s most mysterious creatures. Scientists and experts have a hard time studying this animal to the fullest because they only come out at night to hunt for food and sleep in their burrows during the day. Their solitary nature is another factor which makes it more difficult to study their behaviour.
What we do know is that these magnificent creatures are very powerful diggers who use their claws to dig burrows for themselves and hunt for food, particularly termites. What important and barely known fact about giant armadillos is how they play a very important role in the South American ecosystem, they’ve even been labelled as “ecosystem engineers” by experts.
This is because the burrows that they create are so massive that they have been able to support many different species. In addition to this, the burrows of giant armadillos also play a very huge role in both protecting and maintaining the ecosystem. Scientists have theorized that giant armadillo burrows help improve soil quality and plant diversity.
Due to the cloud of mystery surrounding this species, many people are still completely unaware of what the giant armadillo is really like and the kind of role that it plays in stabilizing our ecosystem. As a matter of fact, some experts have even suggested that a complete lack of awareness about this creature is helping to contribute to the threats surrounding its future. It is currently listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List and its overall population is believed to be on a gradual decline.
Giant Armadillos Are Not That Social
Due to their preference to be isolated away from other animals, giant armadillos are rarely seen socializing with their own kind. Even if they encounter another armadillo they rarely pay them any attention and would simply go on about with their own business. They prefer to hunt and dig for food on their own, and will only socialize when mating.
Unlike other wild mammals who are known for being territorial, giant armadillos are the exact opposite. Even if multiple armadillos were to suddenly trespass in their territory, they will simply ignore them and not even attempt to defend their turf.
Like we mentioned earlier, these animals use their powerful claws to dig through dirt to construct burrows where they can rest. Their third claw is shaped like a spade and can be used to dig effortlessly through termite mounds. Due to their voracious appetites, they can easily consume an entire colony of termites and use the remains of the mound as a shelter where they stay for at least 24 hours before moving on again.
Now as far as their mating habits are concerned, this one is a bit of a mystery as well. What is known however, is that giant armadillos are monogamous animals and only mate once every breeding season. Their gestation period lasts for approximately 4 months, and usually yields a single baby. But there are rare instances wherein the mother gives birth to twins.
Baby giant armadillos are born with their patented tough skin and can weigh as much as 113 grams. The babies become fully weaned after 4 to 6 weeks, and reach sexual maturity around 9 to 12 months.