News Stories

Don't Pet That Armadillo

Humans are tough on animals, but sometimes they fight back. Nature isn't always benign: Some critters can be dangerous. You know you should avoid poisonous snakes, but did you know you shouldn't pet that armadillo? It may be carrying leprosy, and while leprosy, now known as Hanson's Disease, is a bacterial infection that can now be cured, it's not something you want to get!

Using advanced DNA analysis and extensive field work, an international research team has confirmed the link between leprosy infection in Americans and direct contact with armadillos. There are only around 150 cases of leprosy in the United States each year, and most of these victims have worked abroad in areas in which leprosy is endemic, making it likely that they may have acquired the disease while outside the US. But to the alarm of health authorities, a third of all patients infected appear to have contracted the disease locally--especially in the Southern states, which is why they decided to investigate whether or not the disease was being transmitted though contact with armadillos, which--aside from humans--are the only other known carriers of the leprosy-causing bacteria.

Global heath expert Stewart Cole says, "There is a very strong association between the geographic location of the presence of this particular strain of (leprosy bacteria) and the presence of armadillos in the Southern US. Our research provides clear DNA evidence that the unique strain found in armadillos is the same as the one in certain humans." The prevalence of both leprosy and armadillos in the Southern US is probably why the only center in the continental US for the treatment of Hansen's Disease is located in Carville, Louisiana.

On nice thing about skunks is they WARN us before they spray us, with their bright coloration. Why do some species such as skunks use bold coloration to warn predators either that they risk being sprayed with stinky gas or getting into a vicious fight, while other species don’t (like to take them by surprise, instead)? Biologist Ted Stankowich says, "It's important to be clear that bold coloration is not just advertising the ability to spray your anal glands, it's often an advertisement for ferocity. Some of these small black and white animals are extremely ferocious, for example the honey badger."

He collected data on 188 species of mammalian carnivores and found those who are more boldly colored are more likely to be stocky, able to spray noxious chemicals from their anal glands, burrowing, nocturnal and living in exposed environments. According to Stankowich, "One question we're asking is what are the possible evolutionary advantages of bold coloration in mammals. Why would you want to be so bold, calling more attention to yourself when camouflage is such an effective strategy?"

One advantage is the ability to move into a new habitat that is relatively exposed to predators but not exploited by other animals or the ability to remain living in a habitat that suddenly experiences an influx of new predators. Once your "reputation" becomes known, everyone will leave you alone! It turns out that species with horizontal stripes along the body leading to the tail are more likely to be able to spray their anal gland secretions at predators in defense, suggesting that the stripes also direct the predator's attention to the area where the weapon is found.

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I am puzzled why news organizations, and SCIENTISTS, are treating this as something new. The link between leprosy, humans, and armadillos has been known for many years. Armadillos are an ancient species and unfortunately here in Texas, the poor, very near-sighted little critters are frequent road-kill. They are also quite iconic here, so bottom line should be to just leave them alone and admire them from a distance. Last year I was fortunate enough to see 4 baby armadillos every day when I took my walk at lunch in a local neighborhood park for a period of about a month. Each time the little fellows came too close to the sidewalk, I gently stomped my feet to send them scurrying back into the underbrush, fearing that curious and ignorant children (and adults) would decide to adopt and take one home.

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