Monday, August 3, 2009

Things That Go Chomp in the Night

I found this mysterious flying monstrosity in the barn, flapping around the lights and crash diving into the floor. I only had a chance to snap one picture before one of the dogs discovered it and promptly ate its wings and one of its legs. I threw it outside before she swallowed it whole. Anyone want to hazard a guess to what it is? It looked like a flying mole cricket. Do they fly? (According to Google Images, they do. Huh. Learn something new every day.)

The cricket, of course, was accompanied by a multitude of moths, a bevy of beetles, a congregation of creepy-crawlies (so maybe I’m grasping at straws for alliteration here). Tiny black bugs cover the ground underneath every light source, and fat bloated toads sit in the middle of a swarm, overwhelmed and overfed. You can’t walk outside without getting bombarded by flying insects that tangle in the hair and find their way underneath clothing, winding up smashed and itching.

And there are other nocturnal critters out there, too. Going out to check on the horses at half past midnight, armed with a high beam flashlight (unnecessary with the almost full moon), I spooked up a few meadowlarks settled in the tall grass before my feet. Sweeping my light around, I noticed bright reflecting eyes staring back at me. A chorus of coyotes and a barred owl started up in the distance, adding to the symphony of singing, grinding, and scraping performed by frogs and bugs.

And then Chi-Chi, my dachshund companion, took off barking, hot on the hunt. I aimed my light at her and saw her on the heels of a gray animal about her size. She was yapping and nipping and having a grand old time, while the armadillo (for that’s what it turned out to be) jumped and hopped and tried to scurry away in its haphazard, awkward, and most inefficient manner. I pulled the dog off (much to her offended chagrin) and followed the ‘dillo. It appeared to be mostly blind and mostly stupid, and when I got up close, I simply reached down, grabbed it by the tail, and hauled it into the air. From here, I examined its bumpy pink underbelly (covered in coarse bristly hairs), its thick, plated tail (through which I could feel its terrified pulse), its powerful digging feet (armed with sharp claws but not unlike cloven hooves), its armored back (wet with Chi-Chi’s spit), and its triangular, mouse-eared, pig-eyed head. Not knowing what else to do, I set it back down and it ambled off.

Then I came in and washed my hands, for I’ve heard that armadillos can carry leprosy, in addition to other nasty diseases.


secret agent woman said...

That is one revolting bug.

I came across an armadillo in a campground in south Georgia once - it held still and let me pet it. I hadn't heard the leprosy thing, though.

Mozart said...

Stole this off the Internet:

It was long thought only humans could get leprosy. Then in the late 1960s researchers speculated that armadillos might be a good test bed for leprosy research because (a) M. leprae thrives in cooler parts of the body (feet, nose, ears, etc.); (b) armadillos have a relatively low body temperature as mammals go, 30 to 35 degrees Celsius compared to 37 degrees in humans (98.6 Fahrenheit for you retro types); (c) armadillos live long enough, 12 to 15 years, for this slow-acting disease to emerge; and (d) armadillo litters almost invariably consist of identical quadruplets, which was useful for genetic experiments.

Aspects of this conjecture might seem far-fetched (I'm thinking of the low body temp part), but it panned out. Several nine-banded armadillos, the type found in the U.S., were inoculated with leprosy germs and came down with full-blown cases of the disease.

Later the researchers discovered something odd: some armadillos already had leprosy. At first they thought the animals had escaped from the leprosy-inoculation experiment or become infected through contact with the lab's waste. But eventually these possibilities were ruled out. Nine-banded armadillos, of which there are 30 to 50 million in the southeastern U.S., are believed to be the only significant natural reservoir of leprosy apart from humans. (A few cases have been found in chimps and mangabey monkeys in Africa.) How the armadillos got leprosy in the first place nobody knows. But there you are.

Should you live in fear that you'll be infected by an armadillo? Well, if you're going to worry about AIDS and hepatitis C, you might as well round out your paranoia by worrying about leprosy. Realistically, though, the chances are slim.

While suspected instances of 'dillo-to-human transmission have been reported, leprosy remains uncommon in the U.S. and Canada (6,000 U.S. cases) and is in long-term decline worldwide--an estimated 2.4 million cases as of 1994. Fewer than 5 percent of wild armadillos have it, though I grant you that 5 percent of 30 to 50 million is a lot of armadillos.

The disease is not especially contagious; researchers think that 95 percent of humans are naturally immune. Leprosy is treatable, and a vaccine (not totally effective) is currently available. While one doesn't wish to minimize the consequences of this disease, it's not the certain nightmare it used to be. Equally important, there's no need for people who have it to be treated like, you know, lepers.