By Jason Bittel
Armadillos aren’t what you’d call cute and cuddly: Their beady eyes, scaly skin, and bony shell give them the appearance of a rat masquerading as a lobster.
But the mammals are pretty tough when they roll into a protective ball, which is why Brazil picked a Brazilian three-banded armadillo named Fuleco as the mascot for the 2014 World Cup.
Since many of the event’s 3.2 billion viewers likely don’t know much about armadillos, let’s take a moment to meet these little armored ones.
There are 20 species of armadillos, most of which live in Latin America. The animals belong to the superorder Xenartha, along with sloths and anteaters. That’s not surprising, given the armadillo’s long, sticky tongue, which it uses to nosh on beetles, termites, and various other insects. In fact, a study published in 1943 reported 40,000 ants in the belly of a nine-banded armadillo caught in the southern United States. (Related: “Armadillo Invasion: Warm-Weather Critters Expanding East.”)
Whether you think them ugly or awesome, armadillos are the only mammals to boast a protective shell. Biologists call this overlapping armor a “carapace.” Being neither quick nor dangerous, armadillos use their shell as a barrier against predators—sort of like a furry, scurrying tank.
Some species, like the World Cup’s Brazilian three-banded armadillo, can curl their armor up into a nearly perfect sphere.
Game of Clones
Humans sometimes give birth to multiple children split from a single embryo. We call them twins and triplets. But for an armadillo, that’s nothing.
“The nine-banded armadillos that I study produce litters of quadruplets,” said James Loughry, an armadillo researcher and biologist at Valdosta State University in Georgia. “In fact, there is one species in Argentina [the southern long-nosed armadillo] that gets up to twelve.”
And they do it every time. Scientists call this obligate polyembryony.
Whether it’s four, twelve, or some other number, every armadillo litter is made up of genetically identical pups of the same sex. That means the litters can only ever be all female or all male, and it’s scientifically accurate to call the rugrats “clones.”
A Legacy of Leprosy
Different though we may seem, humans and armadillos share an unfortunate similarity—we’re the only animals that can naturally contract Hansen’s disease, better known as leprosy.
Leprosy is caused by the Mycobacterium leprae bacterium. This nasty bug prefers slightly cooler temperatures, which is why in humans it causes serious damage to the extremities. Unfortunately for our armored friends, armadillos tend to have a lower core body temperature than most mammals. This means the bacterium is free to go crazy throughout their body cavity, eventually causing organ failure and death.
“But in order to contract leprosy from an armadillo,” said Loughry, “I always tell people you really have to want to, because it’s not easy to get it.”
In other words, unless you butcher an armadillo while you have open wounds on your hands, you’re unlikely to catch leprosy from one of these animals.
If only the same were true for the armadillos. By sequencing the bacterium’s genome, scientists have determined that leprosy didn’t exist in the New World until Europeans arrived.
Which means armadillos suffer from this scourge only because we gave it to them some five hundred years ago.
Armadillos aren’t doing so well in Brazil, either: The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the three-banded armadillo as a vulnerable species, mostly due to habitat destruction.
Loughry belongs to an IUCN specialist group that deals with armadillos, sloths, and anteaters, and he said the World Cup is a hot topic among conservationists—but not because of international soccer rivalries.
“Though FIFA has adopted the armadillo as a mascot for the World Cup, they’re not providing any money for conservation of armadillos in Brazil,” said Loughry. (Also see: “Diggers in the Dark: Discovering Giant Armadillos in Brazil’s Pantanal.”)
That’s why numerous scientists have called for FIFA to protect armadillo habitat for every goal scored in the World Cup.
“By acting boldly and swiftly, FIFA and the Brazilian government could help save the Brazilian three-banded armadillo and protect thousands of hectares of its habitat,” Enrico Bernard, a biologist at Brazil’s Federal University of Pernambuco, said in a statement.
“That would be the best goal scored this Cup.”