The ancient Aztecs called them "tortoise rabbits," and the Mayans believed the gods created them for torment and revenge.
Here in Georgia, where the ponderous armadillos continue to expand their range and density, they get called other names -- and most of them we can't print.
Their uses? Aside from handbags and target practice, most folks don't see much merit in a creature that has survived in various forms since dinosaurs ruled the earth.
But they are fascinating -- and unique among their species.
Armadillos are native to Texas but were introduced in Florida in the 1920s. They have shuffled their way northward ever since, arriving in south Georgia in the 1950s.
As climates have warmed, they have expanded their range and now live in almost all Georgia counties, according to Melissa Cummings, the state Wildlife Resources Division's public affairs officer.
Most complaints involve their tendency to root and dig through flower beds and lawns, Cummings said.
"They also make a lot of noise at night bumping into buildings and foundations."
Wildlife officials get so many complaints, in fact, that the division plans to issue a fact sheet soon to answer the many questions people have about armadillos.
Here are some of the more interesting traits of these unusual animals, as compiled by sources including the American Museum of Natural History and the Texas Department of Wildlife:
- The species found in Augusta is called the nine-banded armadillo and also thrives in Peru and Mexico.
- They are semi-nocturnal and unfriendly - and they jump straight up when frightened and defecate when disturbed.
- Although they are unrelated to any other species in the United States, they have genetic kinship with anteaters, sloths and other species that inhabit other continents. They are also one of only a few mammals that can carry leprosy.
- Armadillo headplates are unique to each armadillo, like human fingerprints.
- The word "armadillo" is Spanish in origin, and it means "little armored one."
- The armadillo is the state small mammal of Texas.
- They don't float well, and sometimes they hold their breath and walk along the bottom of a creek if it is short and shallow. If the expanse of water to be traversed is of considerable extent, the animals ingest air, inflate themselves and thus increase their buoyancy.
- Charles Darwin, while postulating his theories of evolution, still had time to enjoy the armadillos he found in South America. In fact, he actually ate one, later writing in his journal: "In the morning we had caught an armadillo, which, although a most excellent dish when roasted in its shell, did not make a very substantial breakfast and dinner for two hungry men."
- Armadillos, which eat mostly insects, are often accused of destroying quail and chicken nests when actual culprits are other animals.
- All four young, always of the same sex, are identical quadruplets and developed from the same egg.
- The armadillo has four claws on its front feet and five on its rear feet.
- The two things that can eradicate armadillos are extended freezing temperatures and rocky terrain that is too hard for them to burrow into.
- Armadillos in Georgia may be shot or trapped any time of the year.
- Armadillos are descendants of a much-larger creature from pre-historic times that shared space with the dinosaurs. That animal, known among archaeologists as the "beautiful armadillo,'' was larger than a refrigerator.
Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.