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Armor, claws, cuteness, and leprosy; Jessi shares what makes armadillos so interesting and amazing. Featuring Gaia!

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Jessi: Pink fairies, screaming hairies, long-nose and giant... armadillos come in many shapes and sizes, but only one genus can roll completely into a ball.

(Animal Wonders Intro plays)

Jessi: Welcome to Animal Wonders, home of Gaia, the amazing ball of cute! I'm Jessi and today I want to share with you what makes armadillos so amazing.

There are 20 living species of armadillos, from the tiny pink fairy armadillo to the large aptly-named giant armadillo. They all have some kind of armor and strong digging claws.

The armadillo's closest relative are in the super order Xenarthra, which includes anteaters and sloths, but that relation goes way back to when South America was an isolated continent back in the Cenozoic era, or age of mammals, when mammals really began to become diverse.

I love learning animal origin stories! Armadillos began to spread out from Paraguay and they diversified as they went. Currently you can find them in South America all the way through the southern parts of North America.

We have one very special armadillo to feature today, Gaia the southern three-banded armadillo. She's part of the genus Tolypeutes which means that she has three band that connect her hip armor to her shoulder armor.

This genus has two species, the Brazilian three banded armadillo and the southern three banded armadillo. Her native habitat is the arid regions of south central South America as opposed to eastern Brazil.

But the most interesting feature of the armadillo is this incredible armor that they have. It's composed of durable bone with an outer layer of keratin, called scutes. It's similar to that of a tortoise, but unlike a tortoise, they have bands of armor connected by skin that allows more flexibility.

Three banded armadillos use their armor more effectively than other armadillos, because they can roll completely into an impenetrable ball. The larger six-banded and nine-banded, they just have too many bands to roll up completely.

These guys even have a head plate and an armored tail. They fit perfectly together like a puzzle. This hard bony armor is practically predator-resistant. Sometimes, they can get a little tricksy, leaving a little space here, but the predator might think they can stick they're toe or nose inside and then they'll snap it shut, trying to pinch or startle that predator. Sneaky armadillos.

Three banded-armadillos rely on their armor for defense, so they don't really dig burrows, they mostly hide under bushes. So this ball of armor is pretty much a foolproof defense mechanism, unless the predator's a human.

These guys' population is declining rapidly, and the Brazilian three-banded armadillo's status is endangered. Hunting, habitat loss due to grazing lands, and the pet trade are the biggest factors in the population decline.

So their armor is pretty cool, but let's move beyond that and see what else makes her amazing. If you've noticed, Gaia likes to use her claws a lot. She instinctually wants to dig when she thinks food is around. Right now she's getting ready cuz she knows treats are coming.

In the wild, food wouldn't just appear when she started digging, she'd have to search for it, and that's where her excellent sense of smell comes in. She skips along on the tips of her front claws and the pads of her back feet until she smells something that she wants to eat, usually termites.

When she smells that, she digs into the Earth, sticks her nose in the hole, and then licks up the termites with her long sticky tongue. These guys have no teeth in the fronts of their mouths. Instead, they use their rudimentary molars in the back, which are perfect for crushing the exoskeletons of insects like termites.

Armadillos also have a low body temperature with not much fur to keep them warm, so they're limited to arid regions. Now three-banded armadillos like Gaia can survive and thrive in extremely hot regions where other armadillo species can't.

This is because their armor isn't as close to their body as in other species. There's a space between their armor and their body that traps air and allows for better thermal regulation. Speaking of low body temperature, armadillos run 92-97 degrees Fahrenheit, so like humans some are susceptible to leprosy.

Which might seem scary, but only the nine-banded species are carriers and research shows that human to human transmission is more common than armadillo to  human transmission. 20% of nine-banded armadillos are carriers, but 95% of humans are immune to leprosy. Now, armadillos actually got the raw deal because scientists think that humans actually spread leprosy to armadillos in the first place, about four to five hundred years ago. Sorry guys.

So this armor might look clunky and restrictive, but actually she's a lot more flexible than she looks, and quite able when it comes to rough terrain. Imagine a predator's trying to get her, so she rolls up, and they can't get in, so they try and move her around, trying to get in there and they finally realize they can't penetrate this armor. But they leave her... on her back. This would be quite the dangerous situation for a tortoise with their large shell, they would get stuck and they could possibly die, but with her flexibility, watch how she gets out of this situation. Amazing.

And if you're still not impressed by all the amazing things that Gaia can do, she can hold her breath for six minutes, which might come in handy if she's trying to cross a stream. She could either sink to the bottom and walk along, or she could gulp air and become buoyant.

So thank you Gaia for teaching us how amazing armadillos really are. And if you guys would like to go on an adventure with us every week, subscribe to our YouTube channel Animal Wonders Montana. Join us. If you have questions about Gaia or anything else you can leave comments below, or find me on twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook. See you next week.