At the Aquarium

Photography by Dee Puett

How Animals Sense Magnetic Fields

Some new findings on this enduring mystery. 
Newly Discovered "Compass" Protein Lines Up With Magnetic Fields | IFLScience: "It took a long time for scientists to believe that animals were capable of sensing our planet’s magnetic field, and while we now know this so-called magnetoreception is very much a real phenomenon, researchers have yet to grasp a deep understanding of how this is achieved. Now, scientists are starting to piece together this complex puzzle, aided by the discovery of a protein complex that aligns itself with magnetic fields."

Baltimore Sun on Cabinet of Curiosities

Pleased to see Cabinet of Curiosities mentioned in the Dec. 6 Baltimore Sun:

(Here's a peak into my own cabinet:)

Huff Post on Cabinet of Curiosities

Excited to see this article by Arin Greenwood.

This Author Says We've Lost Some Sense Of Wonder, And He Has The Cure: "He said he hopes the compendium inspires others to take a tactile interest in the environments' beauty, stories and interconnectedness -- and our role, as cataloguers, participants and stewards."

The New York Times on Cabinet of Curiosities

A nice review in the Times.

‘The Big Book of Animals of the World,’ and More - The New York Times: "Gordon Grice began collecting at age 6, filling a cigar box with such natural-world discoveries as a skunk’s skull, porcupine quills and seed pods, and he has never stopped. In “Cabinet of Curiosities,” he gives an engaging historical overview of the human enthusiasm for collecting. . ."

Whistler's Wave

Nature images by James MacNeill Whistler.

Blue and Silvar: Blue Wave, Biarritz

Above and below: Peacock images from a room Whistler designed.

Peacocks sweep the fairies' rooms;
They use their folded tails for brooms;
But fairy dust is brighter far
Than any mortal colours are;
And all about their tails it clings
In strange designs of rounds and rings;
And that is why they strut about
And proudly spread their feathers out.
--Rose Fyleman

Violet and Silver: A Deep Sea

Black Bears

As we drove home from Penny and Bob's house the other evening, a black bear ran up to the paved country road. It meant to cross, but our car spooked it. Tracy put on the brakes in plenty of time. We pulled up beside the bear where it stood in the ditch. It looked at us as if we'd behaved badly.

"They look so stupid when they run," Tracy observed. She lacked the space to do an impression; that came later, at home. 

"Like they're made wrong," Parker added. 

Meanwhile, the bear loped off into a corn field. 

Shown here are other, possibly brighter bears, photographed by Dee Puett.

Crow Uses Bait to Catch Fish

Yet more evidence of the intelligence of crows. The guy who recorded this says he saw ten more examples of the behavior.


Starfish (Sea Stars)
Class: Asteroidea

There are more than 1500 species of starfish, which are also called sea stars. They come in a variety of colors, from bright orange to blue to pale pink to brown. Many of them have the typical echinoderm pattern, with five radially symmetrical sections, each sprouting one arm, or ray. Some species, though, have more than twenty arms. Some species, like the crown-of-thorns starfish, have bristles and bumps on their arms. The bristles can produce a dangerous venom, so it pays to be careful around any bristly types you find at the shore.

Most starfish eat clams and other bivalves. To manage this, the starfish forces the clam’s shell open with its strong arms. As soon as there’s even a narrow opening—say, one millimeter wide—the starfish turns its stomach inside out and thrusts it through the crack. The stomach then uses acid to begin digesting the clam. It soon weakens and the starfish is able to open the shell fully. It pulls its stomach back into itself and swallows the clam. Starfish may also eat various other small animals, such as snails, corals, worms, and sponges. Some species eat carrion and even feces.
                 --from Cabinet of Curiosities

Photography by Dee Puett

Massive Great White Shark Caught Near Tunisia

Rare catch of massive great white shark off Tunisia draws criticism | A great white shark weighing 4,400 pounds was caught Wednesday morning off Sousse, Tunisia, and sold by the fisherman for . . .  about $1,500. The store that bought the shark “had to use a crane to hold it in suspension [as it was] cut to pieces under the curious gaze of customers."

Edit: See Max's comment below about the photos of a huge tiger shark also recently in the news. Their origin is uncertain.

Hear Me, O Listeners

Lately I’ve been privileged to speak on two radio shows about my new book, Cabinet of Curiosities. I thought I’d share those talks here.

First there was Central Time, a show on Wisconsin Public Radio. You can listen to my segment here.

Then there was Science Friday. The interview itself is here. Along with it are photos of some of the collectibles lying around our house. The photos are at the bottom of that page, but as you scroll down, you'll see other cool pix contributed by listeners. Parker shot the photos of our stuff, since he knows that cameras and I have a long-standing antipathy. The SciFri folks have also posted an excerpt from the book for your reading pleasure. 

A Predator from the Deep

Jenny/Creative Commons

Here's a new one on me: a polychaete called the Bobbit worm, after the lady in the news a few years back who resolved her marital difficulties with scissors. The worm uses its shearing mouth parts merely to seize and kill prey. My correspondent Max, who shared the video below, compares this critter to the ones in the movie Tremors. 

Bobbit Worm - Dinner time from liquidguru on Vimeo.

Apparently the Bobbit worm has on a couple of occasions showed up uninvited in aquariums. The news account linked below claims that the Bobbit, like a number of other worms in the class Polychaeta, has bristles loaded with a neurotoxic venom capable of harming humans.
Barry the giant sea worm discovered by aquarium staff after mysterious attacks on coral reef | Daily Mail Online: "We laid traps but they got ripped apart in the night. That worm must have obliterated the traps. The bait was full of hooks which he must have just digested.'"

A Stiller Ground Mentioned in Best American Essays

I’m a little late with this news because I never heard about it at the time, but my essay “A Stiller Ground,” published in This Land, was listed in the Notable Essays of the Year in Best American Essays 2014. 

I’ve linked it before, but in case you haven't seen it and want to, here’s "A Stiller Ground" free on This Land’s website.

Update on Baby Attacked by Dog

Logan, the baby who was seriously injured by a rescue dog (and grandson of my friend Dee), is recovering well. He's home and showing no symptoms, though he will have scars. Dee reports that the fearless boy has been playing with her trusted yellow lab.

Here's the post detailing the attack (warning: graphic). 

Deer Bone and Badger Hole

Not long ago I found myself taking two French children and their grandparents on a nature walk. It's the sort of thing that happens to me fairly often. Both kids hoped to see a snake. They'd recently had the opportunity to pet a grass snake and found it interesting. No luck on the snake front, but we did see dragonflies, finches on the wing, male and female pine cones, and other cool stuff. 

Three-year-old Carlie fell asleep and had to be carried, though she woke now and then to look at things. Seven-year-old Jonah was excited to gather stuff for his cabinet of curiosities. He didn't know what a cabinet of curiosities was when the walk started, but his grandmother told him I'd written a book about them, and he warmed to the idea immediately. He found a crow feather to keep. We talked about its parts and how it can cut through the air to help a bird fly even though some of its parts are fluffy. 

Our next discovery was a burrow. The kids had taken an interest in every hole in the ground, wondering what might live inside, but this was the biggest we'd seen. I said it might belong to a badger. They weren't familiar with American badgers, so I tried to explain what they were--something like a raccoon, built low, hunt by night, that sort of thing. "Mostly a meat-eating animal," I added. 

"Do they eat persons?" Jonah asked. 

"No, they're too small for that," I said. 

He seemed disappointed. That's when I knew these were my kind of kids. 

"A bone!" Jonah said a little further along the trail. His mother is an American and he speaks English at least as well as I do, but the O in bone narrowed in the French manner. 

It was the shoulder-bone of a deer. I knew it belonged to a deer because I'd kept an eye on the carcass since last winter. I don't know what killed the deer in the first place, but when my sons and I first discovered it, we found it had been torn and slightly eaten by domestic dogs. We saw their paw prints all around the carcass. In later visits, we saw the scat of a smaller scavenger that burrowed in through the deer's flank to dine. The deer didn't decompose much because of the cold, so the scavenging went on for weeks. 

All of this scavenging had torn the carcass up a bit, but one day I found it totally disarticulated, scattered from the trail head for yards down snowy paths--here a hoofed leg, there a leathery pile of freeze-dried organs. The tracks nearby were clearly those of a canine. I pulled from my coat pocket a ruler I carry for just such an occasion and measured a paw print at five inches across. Probably just a big dog, I thought. But I looked around at the gray winter sky thickening into dusk and tightened my grip on my walking stick. 

That, however, was a lonely winter evening, and now, on this hot summer morning, we found only the one bone. I showed Jonah the hole where a canine tooth had pierced it.  

Rescue Dog Injures Baby

This one hits close to home. The victim is the grandson of my friend and frequent collaborator Dee Puett. I'll turn the floor over to her in a moment, but I wanted to note that this dog had been in the home without causing harm for two weeks. The child was supervised--in fact, he was three feet from his father when the attack occurred.--Gordon

By guest writer Dee Puett

Dear Irresponsible Pet Owner:

My daughter in her unfailing kindness and with all the love she has for animals, tried to save a dog you had disposed of like yesterday's garbage. She took the dog into her home and tried to show it the love and compassion you so very obviously did not give it in the hopes of finding it a home where it would know love and kindness. This dog that you threw away because you lacked the common courtesy to take the animal to a shelter and have it humanely disposed of, turned on my 15 month old grandson. He is in the hospital now with 3 skull fractures, 3 skull puncture wounds that penetrated the protective lining of his brain, one that actually did puncture his brain. He wants to run and play as any 15 month old little boy does, but he has a drain inserted into his head to keep the fluid from building up on his brain, he has an IV inserted into his tiny arm that is no bigger than two of my fingers held together. I have no idea how many stitches it took to reattach his scalp back to his head. His eyes are swollen. His nose had to be stitched closed. He is in pain, he is on medicine that makes it difficult for him to sleep. He faces several weeks of recovery and if he develops an infection in any of those wounds? He may die.

All because of you. All because of your laziness, your inconsideration, your stupidity.

The dog was euthanized, its head cut open and pieces of its brain sent to be tested for rabies. More things to think about while we wait to see how things are going to play out.

I don't hate you, but I am disgusted by you and by the millions of others just like you who dispose of your cats and dogs by throwing them to the streets to fend for themselves. You are deplorable, you are selfish and you deserve to be punished. You can never give my grandson back what you have taken from him. He will likely fear dogs for the rest of his life, he will have scars that will not fade from his body or his mind. You taught this baby to fear and you took away his joy. All because you were too lazy/stupid/inconsiderate to take this dog to a shelter and surrender it. I hope you see this, I hope you find these photos haunting your dreams as much as I have in the last 48 hours. 

Smiling through the pain

This is in the Topeka, Kansas area. Please share this, I want this person to see what they have done. None of this was necessary. None of it. And now good large breed dogs have lost a savior in this world because my daughter can no longer rescue them, the risk is too great.

Each year, approximately 2.7 million animals are euthanized (1.2 million dogs and 1.4 million cats). While some need to be put down, many of them are victims of people who simply cannot or will not take the effort to rehome them. Fostering and rescues are the only option because no one else has come up with a better solution. I will stand behind my daughter's decision to be a foster. She has successfully fostered over 40 dogs and cats in this year alone and with the exception of this single incident, all of her fosters have been successfully adopted. There will no longer be any large breeds though. I think she will be helping with the cats, toy breeds, and fundraising. Which is a loss to large breeds. I hope someone who can will step up and fill the void she is leaving. No animal deserves to be left to die in a concrete shelter at the hands of a stranger.

-Dee Puett

The Deer Near Table 65

Wayne T. Allison

“What the #%&@’s that?” I asked Griffin, interrupting our walk and our philosophizing.

“What the #%&@’s what?” he answered, but his voice went quiet on the last word, because he’d seen the two figures in the ditch, one stepping back into a shadowed alley to avoid us, the other raising its head to stare us down.

It was past dusk. We were walking in the small town of New Richmond, human population about 8000, and Knowles Avenue, with its neon signs and its traffic, lay only a few yards away. It wasn’t the most likely spot to meet a couple of deer. They’d apparently been feeding, or maybe drinking, in the grassy ditch. A row of trees stood nearby, but mostly we were among pavement and plenty of houses.

“Why doesn’t she run?” I said. Partly it was a rhetorical question. Partly I wanted her to hear my voice and know what I was.

She heard. She didn’t seem impressed.

I’m used to getting some respect from white-tailed deer. I meet them often in my walks, and often I’ve wished they’d pause a little longer before they go bounding away. They’re graceful even when still. This one wasn’t moving. I knew what that meant. She’d become habituated to people, maybe even purposely fed. She wouldn’t fear me, might expect to be fed, might even make a point of asserting her sense that I was crowding her.

“You know what to do around deer, right?” I said to Griffin.

“No, actually,” he said.

“Don’t bend over,” I said. “It’ll think you’re charging. And give it plenty of room.” We did, making a big loop to avoid her. She watched us the whole time. I kept giving more room, more room.

She wasn’t very big. “I can probably whip her if she tries anything,” I said.

“That doesn’t sound wise,” Griffin said.

“You’ve got my back, right?”

“I’ll let her kill you, then inherit all your stuff.”

“I’m changing my will tomorrow.”

However, we’d passed her by and were in the parking lot of Snap Fitness. Inside, some brightly-lit yutz was fiddling with dumbbells. Outside, we stood in the glare of red neon, sweaty from our walk in the humid air. Thirty feet away, the deer gazed at us from the dark.


The sequel happened a few days later. No violence went down, but a guy was threated a bit more forcefully than we were.

Fred, who works at Table 65, a restaurant just down Knowles from the gym, was walking home along the same dark alley when he met a deer. Like me, he expected it to give way. Unlike me, he was tired from work and didn’t feel like going around. He advanced. So did the deer. It crowded toward him with a sort of repressed charge, as if falling up a hill. He paused. It paused. He advanced. It charged again, sort of. I wish Fred were here to act out its charges for you. His impression is spot on. He bunches up his shoulder and whinnies and bobs. I’m taking Parker’s word for that; it was he who told me Fred’s story and re-enacted it.

In the end, Fred skirted the deer, giving a little ground but getting home safe. I haven’t heard a word about the deer since. Griffin and I have walked the alley several times since.

“You know what to do in case of a deer, right?” I say.

“Sure,” he says. “Shove you under its hooves and run away.”

Mass Die-Off in Kazakhstan, Plus Hideous Diseases

In an alarming development, saiga antelope died in droves this calving season. Scientists are trying to figure out why. 

60,000 Antelope Died in Four Days and No One Knows Why - NBC News: "Within four days, the entire herd — 60,000 saiga — had died. As veterinarians and conservationists tried to stem the die-off, they also got word of similar population crashes in other herds across Kazakhstan. "
The saiga bears a peculiar snout resembling an elephant's trunk. Apparently this adaptation helps filter dust.  

As mentioned, the bacteria suspected here are common ones that typically do little harm. The genus Pasteurella contains at least ten members, all parasites of animals. Most of them occasionally pass to people, typically through the bites of cats and other pets. When introduced in this way, they can become dangerous. The symptoms include swelling and bleeding at the site of the bite, joint pain, and, in more severe cases, infection of the respiratory system and the small intestine, meningitis, and blood poisoning. But these complications are uncommon; the infection is usually a minor affair. Animals that can transmit an infection to people,besides cats and dogs, include rodents, rabbits, pigs, Tasmanian devils, fleas, and ticks.

Clostridium is a genus of bacteria containing many species and types dangerous to people. They generally live in soil and feces. One route of transmission to people includes the feces of animals and the presence of an open wound. This is not so revolting as it may sound. For example, a gardener may take an infection because cats long ago defecated in her garden; the bacteria linger in the soil. Farm workers encounter similar risks. Another path to danger for people is contamination of foods derived from animals. The effects of the various species are surprisingly diverse:
  • Botulism, a kind of food poisoning caused by the neurotoxins the bacteria make. The symptoms include gastric unpleasantness, disturbed vision, and even death.
  • Gas gangrene, which occurs after the bacteria infect wounds. The results can include loss of limbs and death.
  • Blackleg (a.k.a. symptomatic anthrax, though it is not true anthrax), a disease of goats, sheep, and cattle which attacks the lungs and causes nodules to develop under the hide. It can afflict people who work with livestock.
  • Pigbel (a.k.a. enteritisnecroticans), an infection contracted from pigs that causes sections of the small intestine to die. It is often fatal.
  • Pseudomembranous enterocolitis, in which antibiotics ruin the balance of the tiny lives in the human gut. The result is that some microbes, normally harmless, gain ascendancy, causing ulcerations, hideous diarrhea, and plaques that slough into the feces and emerge in the stool as bits of membrane-like growth. One of the offenders is a species of Clostridium.
  • Tetanus (a.k.a. lockjaw), a notorious disease sometimes called the most painful death a human being can know. The species responsible often resides in the guts of horses and humans, doing no damage. It becomes dangerous when it enters the body through a wound. The symptoms include spasms of the muscles—not just the skeletal muscles, but those that control breathing. The victim’s spine may bend into positions impossible in a healthy person.

Thanks to Dee for the news tip.

The Goats Go for a Stroll

Brian and Lisa let the goats out. . . 

These are fainting goats, so named because they sometimes fall unconscious when startled. We agreed it would be cruel to make them do that on purpose. However, at one point, Brian gave in to temptation and leaped from behind a van to scream at them. They didn't faint. They just ran away. It's probably a good strategy for anyone who finds himself in a similar situation.  

Armadillos and Leprosy in Florida

Ereenegee/Creative Commons
What's Causing Florida's Leprosy Cases?: "Leprosy-causing bacteria continue to infect people in the southern United States, including in Florida, where nine people have been diagnosed with the disease so far this year."

This news item reminded me of the piece I did a few years ago, about similar cases of leprosy in Louisiana. In both cases, the vector of the disease is armadillos. In Louisiana, people caught the disease by eating the armadillos. Here's my original report, which first appeared in Discover. 


Dr. Richard Truman and I dressed in gowns, disposable booties, masks, and rubber gloves.  Then we opened a door and stepped into an odor Truman had warned me about.  It was something like a diaper pail and quite a bit like sour milk.  I was glad for the mask.

The room was full of cement runs – walls about four feet high, forming rectangular pens about six by three feet.  The cement floors were littered with sawdust.  The dishes for food and water were just like those one might provide for a dog or cat—in fact, the food included cat chow—but the residents here were nine-banded armadillos.  An ordinary plastic kitchen trash can lay in each run to serve as a burrow.

Truman, a tall, soft-spoken man whose silver hair didn’t match his youthful face, asked a lab assistant to roust one armadillo from its sawdust.  The animal looked like an inverted bronze gravy boat with a head and tail.  The assistant gripped it at the back of the neck and the back of the tail—pretty much the only option if you want to avoid an armadillo’s impressive digging claws.  Truman let me hold the thing.  Excluding the tail, it was about the size of a football, but heavier than your average cat.  It wriggled and flexed, kicking with all four feet.  Its pink belly was studded with protuberances from which tufts of hair sprouted.  These structures, Truman said, have a sensory function.

After that brief hands-on encounter, Truman asked the assistant to put the armadillo back.  They’re sensitive animals, poorly suited to captivity, and too much human handling can prove fatal for them.  I was, in fact, allowed to see only the healthy armadillos at Louisiana State University, home to the Laboratory Research Branch of the G. W. Long Hansen’s Disease Center, and those only with strict sanitary controls.  The ones with leprosy were strictly off-limits—I was more dangerous to them as a source of secondary infections than they were to me.

I was there to learn about two mysterious organisms, both poorly understood even after centuries of contact with people.  One, of course, is the armadillo; the other is Mycobacterium leprae, the microorganism responsible for leprosy.  Truman and other researchers are using the former to study the latter.  What they’ve discovered so far is a lesson in the complexity of the natural world.


The symptoms of leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, start in the nerves.  Patches of skin lose feeling.  For some people, that’s as far as it goes.  For others, things get much worse.  Grainy, ulcerating lesions appear on the hands, feet, and back, and, in men, the testicles.  Nerves degenerate, causing the glands that oil the skin to stop working.  The skin cracks, leaving the extremities vulnerable to secondary infections.  People lose fingers and toes—not because of the disease itself, but because they don’t notice that they’re too close to a fire or that rats are nibbling at them.  The dead nerves create an array of odd postures—the claw-hand, the staring eye that cannot be closed.  The respiratory system is invaded; a slimy discharge issues from the nose.  The eyes succumb to infection and eventually to blindness.  The disease progresses slowly, the first lesion following the actual infection by three years or more, the worst manifestations developing years after that.  But these horrific symptoms occur in only a tiny minority of those infected, and most people are not susceptible to infection at all.  “M. leprae is almost the perfect parasite,” Truman said, because it so rarely destroys its host, and then only very slowly.

The skulls of four Egyptians from the second century BCE have curious deformities.  Certain parts of the face seem to have eroded before death.  These skulls are the oldest hard evidence of leprosy, one of the oldest human diseases.  Detailed descriptions of symptoms in various documents push our known contacts with leprosy back even further, to about 600 BCE.  Beyond that, the vagueness of historical descriptions becomes a problem.  There are accounts of a leprosy-like disease invading Egypt from the Sudan during the reign of Ramses II.  The disease mentioned with such horror in the Bible may not be the same thing as modern leprosy—its symptoms are only vaguely alluded to, and sometimes it seems not even to be a disease as we understand the idea, but sin figuratively described.  If the biblical references are to a literal skin-mottling disease, some commentators find smallpox a more likely candidate.

But it’s certain that genuine leprosy has peeked into human history at odd junctures, as when the soldiers of Alexander the Great conquered the East and brought back silks, spices, and the disease.  Europeans came back from the crusades infected—a public relations problem for the Church, since the crusades were supposed to be a holy war, and leprosy appeared to place God on the other side.  For a few centuries, lepers’ homes existed throughout Europe.  Leprosy’s decline as a major health problem on that continent coincided with the Black Death, which tended to kill the inmates of lepers’ homes and thus break the mysterious chain of transmission for the older disease.  But elsewhere in the world, leprosy has never lost its hold.  Half a million new cases appear annually, and the total number of people afflicted is at least ten million. India and Brazil currently have especially severe leprosy problems, but the disease occurs virtually everywhere in the world, including about 6000 cases currently in the United States.

The notion that leprosy is contagious has been around for at least 2500 years, but a competing hypothesis blamed heredity.  It made some sense: relatives of lepers proved more likely than others to become lepers themselves. Western science dropped the hereditary theory in the 1880s, when a missionary named Father Damien, who had a well-documented and leprosy-free family background, was revealed to have caught the disease while working with lepers on Molokai. By that time, a Norwegian doctor named Armauer Hansen had discovered Mycobacterium leprae, the organism that causes the disease. The nasal secretions of people with severe cases carry enormous quantities of M. leprae, and many physicians and researchers assume that the microbe infects new victims through the respiratory system or through open wounds. Hansen immediately recognized the importance of cultivating M. leprae for study, but he found he couldn’t keep the bacterium alive in a dish.  Even now, no one has succeeded in cultivating it outside a warm body.  “It starts to die as soon as it’s out of the tissue,” said James Krahenbuhl, Truman’s colleague at the G. W. Long Hansen’s Disease Center.  Hansen tried to infect rabbits with M. leprae, but it didn’t take.

In 1956, Chapman H. Binford, having noted that leprosy attacks the coolest areas of the human body, suggested that lab animals might be susceptible to infection in their cooler regions.  By 1960, C. C. Sheppard had successfully inoculated the footpads of mice.  Soon mouse footpads and hamster ears were yielding fresh supplies of M. leprae, though never in the quantities needed for effective leprosy research.  The fresh cadavers of infected humans remained the best source for the microbes.

Then the team of Wally Kirchheimer and Eleanor Storrs noticed that armadillos are cool all over.  At 30-35 degrees Celsius, armadillos run several degrees cooler than typical mammals.  The animal’s armor probably has something to do with its low temperature; it certainly makes the armadillo a poor regulator of body temperature, as mammals go.


My personal acquaintance with armadillos began at a freak show in the Oklahoma Panhandle in the early 1970s.  The show’s exhibits included a five-legged sheep, a three-legged chicken, a hairless Mexican “Elephant-dog,” and, at the curtained end of the tent, to be seen only after payment of an extra dollar, a pickled, two-headed human baby (“Born to live,” a taped voice kept saying, and when I asked my mother what that meant, she said we’d talk about it later, but we never have). And a Living Dinosaur.

Contrary to its billing, the Living Dinosaur was not actually alive.  Its desiccated carcass was glued to a felt-covered board.  A placard explained that this creature had existed “when dinosaurs ruled the earth” and had survived to the present day.  The placard didn’t make clear that the thing itself was not a dinosaur, despite its resemblance to a miniature triceratops.  It was, in fact, an armadillo.  A huge taxonomic blunder had been compounded with the slip of an era.

Nowadays, when armadillo knick-knacks litter eBay and caricatures of the animal have promoted everything from Lone Star beer to the professional baseball team of Amarillo, Texas, the “Living Dinosaur” fraud would fool nobody.  But in the early 1970s, armadillos were unknown in the Oklahoma Panhandle and most of the rest of the country, though they had long been familiar to people in south Texas, Louisiana, and Florida.  Since crossing the Rio Grande into the United States in the 1870s, armadillos have colonized most of the Southeast, their progress having only recently come to an apparent halt at the Rockies in the West and around the southern tip of Indiana in the north, where cold has barred them from further progress.

During the 1970s armadillos also colonized the consciousness of the American public, so that soon everybody seemed to know what one looked like.  In the early 1980s I ventured downstate to attend college at Stillwater, Oklahoma.  On my first trip there, though I no longer found armadillos exotic, I nonetheless found myself startled at the sight of several hundred dead ones.  They littered the road and the right of way.  The day was hot, and many of the carcasses had bloated, their legs jutting at forty-five degree angles.  One in particular caught my eye: a car tire had halved it as neatly as a ripe watermelon.

This mini-apocalypse points to two interesting armadillo behaviors.  One is a defensive tactic: when threatened, an armadillo springs straight up.  This move is effective against most predators, but suicidal against cars.  The other behavior is dietary: armadillos eat carrion, including dead armadillos, and the grubs and maggots they find therein.  So a highway strewn with kindred carcasses apparently strikes an armadillo as an irresistible feast.

The armadillo family tree includes a number of interesting branches, including about twenty extant species in South America.  Some of them look like opossums that have tumbled through a dryer’s fluff cycle.  Among their ancestors are an extinct North American species that weighed five or six hundred pounds.  Their nearest relatives are the anteaters and sloths, with which they share some extra flexibility in the spine and a lack of well-developed, specialized teeth.  The only armadillo found in the United States in modern times is the nine-banded species, so called because accordion folds in the middle of its back join the shell-like sections fore and aft.  The armor is made of ossified skin.  It’s not hard like a tortoise’s shell; it’s more like stiff leather.  The head and limbs sport plates of this armor as well.

Its unusual architecture causes the armadillo to copulate in the missionary position.  Its young are normally identical quadruplets all wrapped in the same placenta, though occasionally it produces eight or twelve identical young.  The fertilized armadillo egg can lie in its mother’s reproductive tract for up to three years, bathed in nourishing fluids, before implanting.  Some female armadillos, having mated only once, give birth to separate litters in successive years.

The armadillo’s oddities don’t stop there.  It can gulp air until its digestive tract balloons, making its heavy body light enough to swim.  Alternatively, it can stay deflated and walk underwater, holding its breath for as long as six minutes.  It doesn’t roll into a ball when attacked, as some of its southern relatives do, but it can plug a burrow entrance with its armored back and thrust its claws into the dirt so that it’s almost impossible to remove.  One authority claims a person can induce an armadillo to relax its grip by inserting a finger into its rectum, but I have not personally verified this fact.

One fact I have verified is that armadillos are don’t do well in captivity.  When I was in college my dorm competed in an armadillo race.  It was, if memory serves, part of a festival involving a pie-in-the-face auction and other such revelry.  My dorm-mates and I went into the country a week or so before the event to capture our entrant.  We went at night and took flashlights.  A few miles out of town, we could actually hear the animals crashing around in a wash where people had dumped their trash.  When a flashlight beam caught one, it paused, then turned with surprising grace and fled.  It ran faster than I had expected, its pill-bug body scooting along like a drop of water sliding down a window pane, but its erratic course allowed us to catch up.  The guy who grabbed it uttered increasingly vile profanity as the armadillo bruised his gut with stiff kicks.  A flashlight beam showed the claws drawing a flurry of down from the guy’s vest.

Once we had the armadillo back to the dorm, it stayed in our rooms.  Whoever had it would go sleepless, because the thing wandered around all night, knocking over furniture and smacking into walls.  We fed it an assortment of leftovers smuggled from the cafeteria; it particularly liked cantaloupe.  We won the race by default because no one else bothered to catch an armadillo.  Afterwards, we let ours go.  No one had intentionally mistreated it, but its tail had somehow become ringed with wicked black wounds.

Though we didn’t mean to be, we were cruel to capture the armadillo.  We didn’t know that captive armadillos may sleep around the clock, like human victims of depression, or refuse food and water.  The males may dehydrate themselves by zealously scent-marking their cages with urine.  The captives may suffer from boils or constipation. If several are caged together, they lick each other’s wounds, keeping them open and weeping.  Sometimes the licking turns to cannibalism. And they seldom breed in captivity, so armadillo colonies like the one at LSU have to be replenished with frequent new captures.  Truman regularly sends his graduate students into the woods near Baton Rouge for more armadillos.

Such were the problems Storrs and Kirchheimer had to overcome in 1968, when they attempted to inoculate armadillos with M. leprae.  Not only did the armadillos get leprosy, they got it more thoroughly than any human being ever had.  Organs that remain untouched in the worst human cases were loaded with bacilli in the armadillos.  With their twelve-year life-spans—much longer than those of mice and rabbits—the armadillos lived long enough to develop full-blown cases.  This complete susceptibility is the reason armadillos remain the animal of choice for leprosy research.  It comes down to numbers: an armadillo yields one million times more of the M. leprae bacilli than a mouse footpad.


Storrs and Kirchheimer published their results in 1971 and 1972.  Besides armadillos and mice, several other mammals had proved, or soon would prove, susceptible to injections of M. leprae—rats, hedgehogs, ground squirrels.  But scientists had always believed people were the only natural host for the microbe.  That’s why they were shocked by a 1975 report of leprosy in wild armadillos.

Several factors combined to make the situation seem like a horror story.  The wild leprous armadillos had turned up in Louisiana, not too far from the site of experiments by Storrs, Kirchheimer, and others.  The obvious inference was that experimental animals might have escaped, or at least that the carcasses of lab animals might have been cannibalized by wild armadillos.  If leprosy was new to the armadillo population, there was no way to know how fast it might spread between armadillos—or even into the human population.

At roughly the same time, the armadillo’s conquest of the United States was fast becoming familiar to the average American.  Newspapers reported the leprosy connection, creating the latest version of the deadly animal invasion story that seems to crop up with a different cast of characters every few years (black widow spiders, killer bees, and fire ants have all figured in similar scare-stories).  Finger-pointing among a few biologists didn’t help matters.

Armadillos dig for insects and carrion compulsively, and that trait had already given them a folkloric reputation as grave-robbers in parts of the south.  The possibility of armadillos having contracted leprosy from human corpses was an alternative to blaming the scientists—though not an attractive one, since either scenario left open the possibility that people might be in for a wave of disease.  Of course, scientists who worked with leprosy realized that its threat was minor.  Not only does the disease progress slowly, but it is frequently re-introduced to the United States by human immigrants without spreading widely.  These points were not always mentioned in the press.

Other developments complicated the story.  Chimpanzees came down with leprosy in 1977, as did sooty mangabey monkeys in 1981.  In both cases, the primates were lab animals, but not the subjects of leprosy experiments.  These discoveries, which suggested that leprosy might occur naturally in any number of nonhuman species, lent credence to the idea that armadillos might have carried the disease long before the species was used in leprosy research.  Whether wild primates get the disease outside labs is still hotly debated; skeptics think humans infected a few chimps and mangabeys somewhere in the process of capture or lab work. To add another layer of mystery, no one has yet observed leprosy transmitted between armadillos in captivity, but cage-mates of infected primates have come down with the disease.

In 1983, researchers reported leprosy in five people in Texas who had frequently handled armadillos.  It was impossible to prove that armadillos were the source of the infection, since even now no one is certain of the disease’s route of transmission, but the implication couldn’t be ignored.   Since then, armadillos have been implicated in a number of other human cases.  Why so many people would be handling armadillos puzzled me, since my only hands-on experience had been the ridiculous armadillo race. Truman resolved my confusion: “People do eat quite a lot of armadillo.”

Truman and his colleagues finally put the question of scientific culpability to rest in 1986.  They tested blood samples which had been drawn from armadillos in the early 1960s and kept frozen in a wildlife sera collection at Louisiana State ever since.  Truman’s group found some of these samples contained definitive evidence of M. leprae.  Since the samples predated the 1968 clinical work, Storrs and Kirchheimer and later leprosy researchers were off the hook.  They couldn’t have provided the first contact between M. leprae and wild armadillos.

But if scientists weren’t to blame, who was?  Leprosy is un-American; even today, Native Americans don’t seem to get it.  Truman and company looked into the distribution of the disease in the U.S. In both armadillos and people, the disease occurs most frequently in moist, low-lying areas.  So far, this generalization has held true for people on several continents. So perhaps M. leprae is hiding in some natural reservoir that occurs in such moist areas.  It’s already been established that the microbe can survive for several weeks in soil, but no one knows whether it typically does so.

Truman’s survey could hypothetically have revealed an origin point from which the disease was spreading.  In fact, leprosy turned out not to follow such a pattern.  No point of origin showed up.  The even distribution led Truman’s group to deduce that leprosy has been here a long time, in both humans and armadillos—maybe centuries. We’ll probably never know when M. leprae arrived in America. Columbus’s invasion marks the earliest possible date. And after the disease arrived, it was only a matter of time until a cold and hungry mammal raided the wrong grave.

Wrangling a Snapping Turtle

We showed this portly specimen when I gave a talk at a local library a while back. Afterward, it momentarily gave its teenaged wranglers the slip and went running. . . straight into the brick wall of the library. Once recaptured, it was returned to the river it came from. 

Photos by Elizabeth Murphy
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