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November 28, 1995

Ask Dr. Salvo

Dear Dr. Salvo,

Some of my friends laugh at me because of my interest in the armadillo, which they claim is not "scientific." Well, as you know, yesterday's science is today's superstition. Who can say he was on hand on the day one became the other?

Not too long ago, several years, many investigators believed that over- exposure to aluminum in food, cooking vegetables, and the general environment was the cause of neurofibrillary tangles compounded with aluminum in the cortical cells of Alzheimer patients. These microscopic features, in turn, could explain the occurrence of the disease.

Indeed one doctor got so excited by all this news that he destroyed, sank, or threw away every aluminum article in the kitchen. Only a few months later he was to read in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine -- that these findings were spurious and that people could go back to their aluminum ice trays with no fear other than the usual ones. The same process we can now see going on in the medical press on the subject of alcohol. Most every European has known for centuries, that several glasses of wine daily were good for health and longevity, has recently been confirmed by "them." That is, "They say alcohol in small doses is good for you!" That only wine is exonerated I imagine to be an economic matter: Even the cheapest spirits cost more than the cheapest wine. In any case, no one has proven that moderate daily consumption of spirits is injurious to humans.

Meanwhile, don't forget the good cholesterol and its recent victory over the evil cholesterol. In old prints, paintings, sculptures, the good cholesterol appears as Saint George. He is just finishing off a rather oily looking dragon representing evil cholesterol.

Some scholars maintain that prints from the same epoch, depicting a St. Bernard with about a five gallon keg slung around his neck -- quite a load to be schlepping through the five foot snow drifts -- that this represents a trend called "the distilleries strike back." That is, active recruiting to the ranks of hard boozers was done by harmless looking giant dogs who would offer the harmless beverage to Alpine climbers on their last legs and unable to defend their virtue.

Well, Boss, the past two pages I have written to you incognito just to test my theory: I think our column needs to be more scientific, being as our audience is stone-crazy about science. So, I say, "You want science we give you science!"

But how to do it? Well, Boss, I suggest we use the classical method: One scientist A quotes another, B, who quotes another, C, who if we're not careful will quote scientist A -- ourselves! This could be a scandal if the quote circle is too small, but one of 15-20 authors would scarcely be noticed. And Boss, our own works are so obscure as to be unknown to the usual medical researcher, so that he might quote us several times in one paper and never notice it. Thus our fame is quiet and modest but solidly founded upon respected, unsuspected allusions. Here is an example of material properly employed to furbish (re- furbish? Unravel? ravel?) our growing scholarly works on "the little armored one, the Armadillo:

The article is entitled "That 'little armored thing' doesn't get by on looks alone," by Bil Gilbert, pp. 142-151 in the Smithsonian, October 1995, Vol. 26, Number 7.

Now, Boss, this delightful and informative article is backed up by references to still other scholarly articles, as set forth below. This display strongly implies that the author in the Smithsonian read all these works and that the various works support one another. Or at least that none is utterly destructive to another author's views. We can refer to these, our supporters, in footnotes, or just lay them out implying a general acquaintance with them.

Boss, since Plato ruled against the validity of the ad hominem argument centuries ago, say 2500 years, I fail to see why the reader is to be impressed by all this name waving and showing off. Let us simply dismiss it as an unfortunate relict, a bad habit from old times. We can occasionally extract some new information from these sources:

Armadillos (p. 142)

The Evolution and Ecology of Armadillo, Sloths and Vermillinguas, edited by G.G. Montgomery, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985.

"Leprosy in the Armadillo: A New Model for Biomedical Research" by E.E. Storrs, G. P. Walsh, H.P. Burchfield, C.H. Binford, Science, March 1, 1974.

"Rising Star" by Jim Watson, National Wildlife, October/November 1989. "Reproduction Delay in the Common Long-nosed Armadillo" by E.E. Storrs, H.P. Burchfield and R.J.W. Tees, Advances in Neotropical Mammalogy, Sandhill Crane Press, 1989.

Boss, the picture of the armadillo that emerges from these sources was surely a big surprise to me:

According to the Mayas the armadillo was on hand in the earliest days of creation. Even then they tricked mortals by leaping straight up. The author Gilbert states, "it looks as though it might have been hastily cobbled together from spare turtle, rabbit, woodchuck, and anteater parts." As I may have mentioned, take a look at the Mock Turtle, in Alice and see an uncanny resemblance.

Boss we're talking all this time about Dasypus novemcinctus, the nine banded armadillo and only one to be founded in North America. The 9-bands look very tough but are easily bitten through by predators; they cannot curl into tight impregnable balls. The smoothness, however, will allow many attackers' teeth to slide off and fail to penetrate.

The most amusing feature of the 9-banders is his facility in water. Here we have worried our minds to learn about how he might have traveled across the Mississippi and other big streams, in his mysterious migration eastward. Well Boss, that little feller has two ways to make it across! He can exhale all his air several times, sink to the bottom and walk across the bottom. This he does in small bodies of water and to create controversy. They can sit on the bottom for 6 minutes.

Or, he can respeatedly inflate his lungs (lungs, not gills, Boss) then zoom across the surface like a Hovercraft; or at least like a double side wheeler that is unsinkable. His style of life is to avoid trouble. He eats small insects, bugs, worms, and of all things: ants! He looks like an anteater because he is one. Toothless, he can't bite you, and he has a quiet and gentle disposition, non-territorial and makes a good pet. He is evolutionarily brilliant, having been here 50 million years with no need for large changes.

About three million years ago, Boss, North and South America became linked by a land bridge. Some predators shipped down south to kill off about 70 percent of the mammals that originated in South America. Not the armadillo: He expanded in numbers and ambition like a Portugese of the 15th Century and launched a counter invasion. This movement took him as far north as the Ohio River Valley. It didn't last. Between five and ten thousand years ago these crusaders were somehow exterminated, leaving only fossils. Not till 1850 did the little armored fellow reappear, in southern Texas -- having walked or swam across the Rio Grande. They pushed north and east into Louisiana and Mississippi, and Boss they still push. All the way to the Atlantic, and some descending from an escaped pair in a Cocoa Island, Florida zoo. They may now be close to their range limits, since they have low body temperature and the 9-bander can't hibernate. Young armadilloes in the deep south may starve when the ground is frozen too long. Despite the shell, the 9-bander is not well insulated.

Think of it, Boss, one and a half centuries ago, no armadilloes in the U.S. Now in 1995, between 30 and 50 million. They are breeding southward from Oklahoma, Arkansas, northern Mississippi, North Carolina, New Mexico, Kansas, and Missouri. (!!!)

The big puzzle: Why has this charming, harmless cuddly creature not been domesticated? It is we who have held back and he who makes all the approaches. Don't you need a pair for the fireants and white ants, just to keep them trimmed?! Or, the farmer could keep several teams to rent out and destroy fire ants, termites, and carpenter ants.

For herd purposes, keep in mind that the armadillo can deliver as much as two years after impregnation -- advantageous for pioneers into new territory: If circumstances appear inauspicious, wait a while to deliver. They adapt easily to captivity, are docile and harmless, and something like a housecat in their emotional cool (th) to humans. They are a bit noisy to keep indoors as house pets.

Just out of the wild they will eat moistened cat food. For treats, try crickets, beetles, sour bugs, and grapes. They can be housebroken more easily and quickly than cats. They learn their names soon, and will come when called. They become gregarious in ways not typical of the wild 'dillo, rarely show hostility to each other, and do not aggressively establish or defend their rather small home ranges (two to ten acres): "Most notably they are effective predators on fire ants, another relatively recent invader of the southern United States." (see Smithsonian July 1990) For Big 5 science the armadillo can harbor leprosy virus for study. In the wild, they carry the Kissing Disease -- Chagas Disease trypanosome, a type of encephalitis or "sleeping sickness."

One can imagine their great usefulness in the control of fireants and other insects.

Thanks for listening, Boss.

Tim, your faithful
Research Associa

-- November 28, 1995


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