Florida health and wildlife experts are warning residents to steer clear of armadillos in light of a reported spike in cases of leprosy. So far this year 2015, nine cases have been reported in Florida, according to the state Department of Health.

Armadillo is a Spanish word meaning “little armored one” and refers to the bony plates that cover the back, head, legs, and tail of most of these odd looking creatures. Armadillos are the only living mammals that wear such shells.

Closely related to anteaters and sloths, armadillos generally have a pointy or shovel-shaped snout and small eyes. They vary widely in size and color, from the 6-inch-long, salmon-colored pink fairy armadillo to the 5-foot-long, dark-brown giant armadillos. Others have black, red, gray, or yellowish coloring.

Contrary to popular belief, not all armadillos are able to encase themselves in their shells. In fact, only the three-banded armadillo can, curling its head and back feet and contorting its shell into a hard ball that confounds would-be predators.

Most species dig burrows and sleep prolifically, up to 16 hours per day, foraging in the early morning and evening for beetles, ants, termites, and other insects. They have very poor eyesight, and utilize their keen sense of smell to hunt. Strong legs and huge front claws are used for digging, and long, sticky tongues for extracting ants and termites from their tunnels. In addition to bugs, armadillos eat small vertebrates, plants, and some fruit, as well as the occasional carrion meal.

The nine-banded armadillo (Dasypusnovemcinctus), named for the nine breaks in the creature's leathery armor that allow it to flex its stiff hide, is an odd-looking mammal about the size of a cat. Armadillos are not native to Florida, but are now common over most of the state. Armadillos like forested or semi-open habitats with loose textured soil that allows them to dig easily. Armadillos dig burrows for homes or to escape predators, and a single armadillo can have several different burrows with multiple entrances. A mature armadillo is 15 to 17 inches long (not counting the tail) with a weight of eight to 17 pounds. Pregnant females always give birth to identical quadruplets. She produces one egg that splits into four identical offspring that are either all female or all male. This trait differs from most other mammals.

Armadillos are fascinating in other respects. When they need to cross narrow water bodies, they often walk on the bottom under water. If it is a wide body of water, they will inflate their stomach to twice its normal size, allowing for enough buoyancy to swim across. When startled, armadillos often leap high into the air, and then run quickly to a nearby burrow. Armadillos prolific rooting and burrowing can severely damage lawns and flower-beds. Moist soil and lush vegetation bring earth worms and insect larvae (armadillo candy!) to the surface of the soil. Armadillos can sometimes be enticed to move by watering areas adjacent to the damage site. Armadillos are not considered native to Florida.

Hansen's disease (also known as leprosy) is a long-lasting infection caused by bacteria. Some armadillos in the southern United States are naturally infected with Hansen's disease. While it’s possible for you to get the disease from an armadillo, the risk is low.

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