March 27, 2018

An Unlikely Passion: How Two VSU Professors Became Leading Armadillo Experts

VALDOSTA — It all started with a National Geographic article and a failed attempt to visit baboons in Africa.

It was the late 1980s, and Dr. Colleen McDonough, now a professor of biology at Valdosta State University, needed a focus for her doctoral research at the University of California, Davis. She wanted to study primates in Africa, but finding the funds to cover the 9,000-mile trip was proving troublesome.

“After trying for a while to raise the money, I realized it wasn’t going to work,” she said. “I needed something I could drive to. My parents had a tiny little trailer, so I figured I could just pull the trailer to someplace in the United States.”

That is when the armadillos came into play — yes, the armored little animals most commonly associated with road kill. 

McDonough had read a National Geographic article that said armadillos almost always give birth to genetically identical quadruplets, a phenomenon not seen in any other vertebrate. That was kind of interesting to her. She also knew from doing a small graduate school project on armadillos that information on the creatures was sparse.

“At the time, virtually nothing was behaviorally known about them besides where they lived and what they ate,” she said. “I figured anything that I could find out about them would be new, which would be good for getting my Ph.D.

“That’s how I got into it, reading a National Geographic article and doing a school report and realizing that I was not getting any money to do baboon work,” she said with a laugh.

McDonough found a research site in Texas that let scientists stay for free while working, and she started studying armadillos day after day. Her soon-to-be husband, Dr. William J. Loughry  — who is also now a professor of biology at VSU — started pitching in to help out with the research here and there. McDonough and Loughry had met at UC Davis, and he was already in Texas with a temporary job as a biology professor when McDonough’s armadillo research took off. 

He, too, liked the room for discovery that armadillo work offered. 

“It seemed like a pretty empty niche,” said Loughry, who came to VSU in 1991, one year before McDonough. “I figured if we could just find a population and study it year after year after year, we’d wind up having something that nobody else had.”

Now, three decades later, the world knows far more about armadillos thanks to the extensive ongoing work of McDonough and Loughry. They have traveled to many parts of the U.S. and even Brazil to study the animals, and they are not done yet.

They have examined the identical quadruplets phenomenon and worked to understand its consequences. They have studied how armadillos interact with and recognize each other via scent. Right now, they are teaming up with other VSU biology professors to study how armadillos at Moody Air Force Base interact with and affect the threatened gopher tortoise.

Their work has covered much of the minute and patterned behavior of the hard-backed creatures that, Loughry said, are mostly oblivious to the world around them.

“When I first started working with them, I was always stunned by how you could walk right up on them and catch them and they didn’t even seem to know that you were there,” he said. “Name another animal where you could do that.”

The scientists’ interest in the creatures is still strong and remains driven by the desire to discover the unknown about an animal that exists from the U.S. all the way down to Northern Argentina.

“There are still very few people who work on them, so it’s not like you have much competition,” McDonough said wryly. “So anything you find is sort of this novelty that you know you can get published because no one else is working on it.”

But it is also the markedly unique aspects of armadillos that have captivated the two scientists for all these years. In addition to birthing four clones at a time, female armadillos have the ability to delay implantation of a fertilized egg and, therefore, delay birth for years after mating. Armadillos are also one of the only other animals besides humans that naturally contract leprosy. 

Scientists once thought leprous armadillos did not exist east of the Mississippi River, but McDonough and Loughry have proved otherwise, finding the disease in many eastern populations in the U.S. They even found leprosy among armadillos in Lowndes County, but the disease has all but disappeared from the South Georgia area in recent years. 

The pair has found themselves in some kooky, armadillo-related situations over the years, like when McDonough came close to eating armadillo meat, which is actually a preferred and valued food item in South America.

“People say it tastes like high-quality pork,” she said.

Once, a friend was cooking up an armadillo in a stew, and he kept urging McDonough to try it. The cajoling almost worked — almost.

“Somebody had shot one because it was digging in the pool or something like that,” she said. “It was big, and it didn’t smell really good as it was cooking, but the guy kept saying, ‘You gotta try it.’ 

“So I said, ‘OK,’ and I looked in the pot, and the guy had the armadillo’s leg in the stew. The claw was still on the leg, and that was it. I said, ‘Forget it. I’m not doing it.’”

Armadillo research also got the two professors temporarily involved in a quest to unlock a dinosaur mystery. In 2016, two Canadian paleontologists contacted McDonough and Loughry with a proposition — find dead armadillos and see if they were bloated and upside down.

There was good reason for the request. Apparently armadillos have a similar body plan to the much larger ankylosaur — an armored, herbivorous species of dinosaur that roamed the entire globe before the dinosaur extinction. Paleontologists discovered that most ankylosaurs found in North America were preserved upside down, and they wanted to know why.

Here is where the dead armadillos were useful. One hypothesis suggested that the ankylosaurs became so bloated after dying that the gases caused them to roll over onto their backs. The dinosaur experts wanted McDonough and Loughry to test that idea.

So each morning that summer, the two drove around for several hours looking for armadillo carcasses. They even got the word out to their friends, who texted the scientists whenever they spotted the road kill.

“I just thought it was kind of funny,” Loughry said. “It’s the goofiest thing I’m ever going to do. And it was easy. All you had to do was find dead armadillos and record their position, then take some and set them out. Checking a decomposing armadillo every day isn’t fun because they stink, but other than that, it was really easy to do.”

The results of the research were less than convincing for the bloat-and-roll hypothesis. None of the armadillos on their stomach rolled over, and only half of the carcasses lying on their right or left side rolled upside down.

“That’s just chance, so it doesn’t seem like the armadillo model to explain the deposition of these ankylosaurs is a valid explanation,” Loughry said.

With the armadillo theory out of contention, paleontologists now think the ankylosaurs drowned or got swept into bodies of water after they died. Researchers believe the bloating changed the ankylosaur’s center of gravity in the water, causing it to roll over and be fossilized in that position.

Beyond dinosaur research, Loughry and McDonough say their lifelong research has many practical applications.

“As far as the leprosy stuff, you’ve got a potential public health issue,” Loughry said. “People want to know if there’s a health risk there. It’s also interesting scientifically to understand the ecology of a disease in a wildlife species.

McDonough added that “anything we can know about the ecology of leprosy in the wild in armadillos is going to help minimize that interaction with humans and lessen it. That is of interest.”

“For the identical quadruplets, I don’t know if there’s any practical benefit for humans, but it’s an interesting question in evolutionary biology,” Loughry said. “You have this really bizarre form of reproduction that no other vertebrate engages in. It’s more of just a pure science question and trying to understand a phenomenon.”

“But who knew 100 years ago that armadillos would become a model for leprosy?” McDonough asked. “Who knows what the delayed implantation could mean for people in the future? People were looking at clonal organisms with Dolly the sheep years ago, but now they’ve also cloned primates and other animals. Armadillos are naturally clonal. What does that mean for artificially cloned organisms? Who knows?”

McDonough and Loughry have compiled much of what they have learned over the past three decades into a book, “The Nine Banded Armadillo: A Natural History,” published in 2013. But there is still more to learn, Loughry said.

“Everything we know about armadillos comes from the extreme northern part of their range, where they’ve only been since the mid-1970s,” he said from his Hugh C. Bailey Science Center office, surrounded by stuffed armadillo toys, figurines, paintings, and even an armadillo sculpture crafted from cast iron horseshoes.

“This is actually just the tip of the iceberg,” he said of all his armadillo memorabilia. “There’s more at home.”