The nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus), a relatively recent addition to the Texas fauna, is the only species of armadillo that occurs in North America, the other twenty or so species of Dasypodidae being restricted to South and Central America. The Texas armadillo is about the size of a large cat; its overall length is about 2½ feet, and adults weigh from twelve to seventeen pounds. Mature females mate in late summer and autumn and give birth to identical quadruplets the following spring. The armadillo's diet consists chiefly of insects, grubs, and spiders, though it also eats such foods as earthworms, small amphibians, and reptiles.
Before the mid-1850s the armadillo was known only along the lower Rio Grande valley. By 1880 it had extended its range across South Texas, and it reached the Hill Country and Austin before the turn of the century. Continuing its movement northward and eastward, the armadillo spread throughout most of Texas and into Louisiana and Oklahoma during the 1920s and 1930s.
Armadillos are adaptable animals. They have few natural enemies; hunters, dogs, coyotes, and automobiles are among the chief agents of mortality. Armadillos are able to survive and reproduce in a variety of habitats. They are, however, susceptible to prolonged drought and extended periods of subfreezing weather so that, except for isolated individuals, armadillos are not permanent residents west or north of the Panhandle and Trans-Pecos regions. Currently, the range of the armadillo extends into northern Oklahoma and Arkansas and east to Georgia and Florida. Individual animals have been reported in New Mexico, Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and South Carolina; a single specimen has been seen in Colorado.
Human beings have contributed significantly to the spread of armadillos. Some have been captured or purchased as curious pets and later escaped or been intentionally released. In these ways breeding populations were initially established in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Some people may have carried armadillos into new territory for human consumption. The animals have long been considered a legitimate game animal in Mexico, and the practice of eating armadillos was adopted by residents of South Texas when the animal migrated there. During the Great Depression, East Texans stocked their larders with armadillos, which they called "Hoover hogs" because of the animal's supposed pork-like flavor (some say chicken-like) and because they considered President Herbert Hoover responsible for the depression. Currently, barbecued armadillo and armadillo chili are popular foods at various festivals in parts of Texas, Arkansas, and the southeastern United States.
Recent medical research suggests that people who regularly handle armadillos may be increasing their exposure to Hansen's disease (leprosy). Armadillos have very limited natural immunity to leprosy, and they are shipped from Texas and other states to research facilities worldwide for study relating to the diagnosis and treatment of this disease.
Armadillos have been promoted as a Texas souvenir since the 1890s. Charles Apelt, inventor of the armadillo-shell basket, first displayed his wares at the New York World's Fair in 1902. His family operated the Apelt Armadillo Company near Comfort until 1971. In addition to baskets, Apelt's catalog listed lamps, wall hangings, and other curios fashioned from the armadillo's shell. His farm was also a principal supplier of live armadillos to zoos, research institutions, and individuals.
Armadillo racing became a popular amusement in Texas during the 1970s. Several organizations, notably from San Angelo, began promoting races throughout the United States, in Canada, and even in Europe. As a result, the animal is strongly associated with Texas. The Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, a rock and country music establishment decorated by the "Michelangelo of armadillo art," Jim Franklin, was from 1970 to 1980 a monument to the association between Texans and the armadillo. In the late 1970s the Texas legislature voted down attempts to make the armadillo the official state mammal, but in 1981 it was declared the official state mascot by executive decree.