It’s hot this week in Boston. And sitting in my hot apartment, sometimes the heat makes me want to scream. So what better time to introduce you to a screaming animal who thrives in the desert: the screaming hairy armadillo.
The screaming hairy armadillo (Chaetophractus vellerosus) is the smallest of the hairy armadillos (there are three hairy armadillo species total). They weigh on average less than 1.9 pounds and only grow between 8.7 and 15.7 inches long. So yeah, screaming hairy armadillos are pretty small little guys.
Luckily, smallness is not correlated with coolness, as this species is pretty neat.
They’re, well, hairy
Scientists aren’t always super clever in what they name things. Screaming hairy armadillos and the two other hairy armadillo species are called hairy because they are covered in hair. That’s it. That’s the reasoning.
Hairy armadillos have much more hair than other armadillo species. Their hair protrudes from between their scutes, the overlapping scales covering their body like armor. This hair is white and light brown, and it covers the limbs and belly of the screaming hair armadillo.
And they scream
Another example of scientists stating the obvious.
Screaming hairy armadillos scream.
When they are threatened or being handled, screaming hairy armadillos make a squealing noise. You can hear the screaming here.
Why do they scream? There are lots of potential reasons, but a main one is that screaming deters predators from eating them. In fact, one 2019 study thinks that the screams are actually distress calls. The researchers found that screaming hairy armadillos screamed more when they were disturbed than when they were treated with care. And since this species is solitary, it’s pretty unlikely that the screams are used to communicate between individuals. A more likely explanation is that predators may be startled by the screaming and drop the armadillo (which can then escape), or the screams may attract another predator that will attack the first one (also allowing the armadillo to escape).
I mean, I would be pretty startled if my dinner started screaming at me.
Life in the desert
Screaming hairy armadillos are native to South America. More specifically, they live just east of the Andes Mountains in the Monte Desert.
Like many desert species, screaming hairy armadillos are highly adapted to the desert environment. They prefer living in deserts with loose sand, which is easier to burrow in; burrowing is essential for their survival, as it lets them escape from the intense sun during the day.
Screaming hairy armadillos also adapt to the heat by changing their activity patterns based on the time of year. They are primarily nocturnal during the summer, when they need to avoid the strong sun. But when the weather is a little bit cooler, they become more diurnal and are active in the afternoon.
One key adaptation for this desert species is their strong kidneys. They have super efficient kidneys which allow them to extract all possible moisture from their diet. Screaming hairy armadillos are also able to get most of their moisture from food like plant leaves. All of this means that screaming hairy armadillos are able to go long periods without drinking water at all.
Hunting for sand worms
As I alluded to, screaming hairy armadillos eat plants. They will also eat invertebrates like insects and small vertebrates like frogs and lizards. So, screaming hairy armadillos are omnivores.
According to the Smithsonian, screaming hairy armadillos will sometimes hunt snakes by throwing themselves on top of the snakes. The edges of their body then cut into the snake, killing them.
However, snakes are not usually on the menu. Instead, insects and worms are really the main source of food, especially during summer. Screaming hairy armadillos will actually sometimes burrow under carcasses and wait for insects to come to the decomposing body.
What I particularly love is how screaming hairy armadillos dig these holes. Instead of using their claws to dig, they will force their heads into the sand and then move around in a circle. This creates a cone-shaped hole.
Of course, one side effect of this digging strategy is that you end up eating a lot of sand. There are records of 50% of a screaming hairy armadillo’s stomach being filled with sand.
I personally wouldn’t recommend eating sand, but you do you, little screaming hairy armadillo.