The Human Side of Animals: Chapter 4 – Amour-Bearing & Mail-Clad Animals

The Human Side of Animals: Chapter 4 - Amour-Bearing & Mail-Clad Animals
The Human Side of Animals by Royal Dixon is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here: [LINK TO TABLE OF LINK]. Chapter IV: Amour-Bearing and Mail-Clad animals


"The spectacle of Nature is always new, for she is always
renewing the spectators. Life is her most exquisite invention;
and death is her expert contrivance to get plenty of life."

—Goethe's Aphorisms (trans. by Huxley).

Civilised nations throughout the world at different times in their country's history have protected their soldiers and warriors with coats of armour or mail. This practice prevailed extensively during the Middle Ages; but it has almost entirely disappeared. The German breastplates of to-day are an attempted revival. The coats of mail of the ancient warriors underwent an evolutionary process, until they were indeed brought to a high pitch of perfection and beauty. It was at this period that they were abandoned as too burdensome to be of practical value.
This protective form of armour has been used by animals since time immemorial, and was copied by man from them; and among the various forms of it are found examples of every kind of armour used in the human world, from the rough leather shields of hide which the savages use, to the ornamental suits of mail, like those used by the knights of the fifteenth century. Indeed, some animals have carried the art of protection to such an extent that they are veritable movable forts, or "tanks!"
In the early part of the earth's history, animals needed greater protection from powerful enemies than they do at present, and they developed a coat of mail, exquisite in appearance and even more efficient than that used by man. Yet, like mankind, they have found newer and more efficient methods of protection, and as a result of changed conditions and enemies, have discarded, at least most of them, their coats of mail and armour. Most of those who have held to the old-fashioned ways of fighting and facing the world, have, like unprogressive peoples, perished; and to-day only a few armour-bearing animals exist. These classes, however, have never been very large, and consist of two small families; the pangolins and the armadillos. The former live in southern Asia and Africa, while the latter are inhabitants of South America.
These animals have a great advantage over man, for their armour grows upon their bodies and is a part of them, while man must put his on and take it off and continually replace the worn-out parts. Again, while there are only three distinct kinds of human armour—the chain, scale and plate armour—there are many kinds of animal armour. What wonderful opportunities exist to-day in the great museums for studying the different kinds of animal armour, for those who are interested!
The scaly ant-eater, who is at home in Africa and Asia, is one of the most unusual and original types of mail-clad animals. He might be compared to a wolf in outline, covered from head to tail in huge, horny plates, which look like immense finger-nails overlapping each other. His head sharpens out into a long, narrow snout, which contains a sticky, worm-like tongue, and this he can use with great rapidity and effect in raiding an ant-hill. He drops his tongue over the entrance, and the ants attempt to crawl over it and are glued to it. He walks in a very unique way by going upon the backs of his feet. This preserves his wonderful claws for bursting open ants' nests, as his chief food consists of these tiny insects and their eggs.
A cousin of the scaly ant-eater, the great ant-eater of South America, has the same general habits of his near-kinsman. He has an immense bushy tail with which some naturalists claim he sweeps up ants. This is not true, however; he uses his tail, when he lies down, to cover himself. The hairs of the tail part in such a manner as to fall over the body like a thatched roof, protecting it from rain and storm alike.
A part of the head and under portion of this ant-eater's body are unprotected, and this is why he rolls himself up like a ball when danger is near. In this position, his scales stand out in such a way as to make a complete row of sharp points, as uninviting as the wires on a barbed wire fence. Yet, it is claimed that certain of his enemies, like the leopard, know his one great weakness—a terror of being wet—and often make him uncoil by rolling him into the water. His coat of hard covering is really compact masses of hardened hair drawn out to sharp dagger points, and might be likened to pine cones endued with power. Through ages of experience, the scaly ant-eater has learned that even his powerful coat of protection is not altogether a success in life's battles, and from time to time his armour has been made lighter and lighter, and because he has been so slow in making the necessary changes, he is to-day very scarce, and able only by the greatest caution to drag out a dull existence as a nocturnal and burrowing animal. It would seem that with such powerful protection as he originally had, he would have outlived the puny armadillos, but his fast disappearance proves that the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.
Among the animals which have discarded their old-fashioned coats of mail, and have successfully protected themselves against all enemies, may be mentioned the frogs, newts, and their kinspeople, the reptiles. These latter, the learned, with their delight in multiplying terms, have classed as amphibians. During the period when the coal forests were growing over what we now know as England, there were innumerable amphibians, and even to-day their petrified footmarks are found in sandstone. The underside of their chests were covered with large bony plates, and in some cases the rest of the body was covered with scale-like bones. Yet, all the newts and frogs of to-day have wisely discarded the old coats of armour used by their forefathers.
The armadillo has an armour of quite another kind, notwithstanding the fact that pangolins and armadillos belong to the same great family, and each eats ants. Their plates of armour, or shields, have nothing at all to do with the hair, nor do they have anything to do with the exo-skeleton; they are formed of bone material, which appears in the true skin in the form of tiny shields, and each shield is itself covered with a hard plate which grows in the outer skin. The actual formation of these shields differs largely in the various species of armadillo.
American Museum of Natural History, New York


It is well to remember that the pangolins and armadillos are the last survivors of a great and ancient family of armour-bearers. Many of their remote ancestors have been found in the rocks and hills of South America, and all of their representatives of to-day are small animals—the last of a doomed race—creatures of yesterday. The glyptodon is known to have been more than eleven feet in length, and his near-kinsman, the chlamydothere, was even larger. He was nearly the size of our present-day rhinoceros. These extinct giants carried on their backs huge domes of bony plates, that must have rivalled our much-feared tanks, of trench war fame. One would think they were invulnerable, yet the glyptodon and the chlamydothere, with many other equally well protected creatures, have long ago disappeared from the earth, but how and why nobody knows. This total disappearance of these marvellously protected giants, which seemed capable of defending themselves against any and all kinds of enemies that might have arisen, is one of the strangest and most unsolvable problems of science.
Another mail-clad animal of importance is the armadillo of the tropical and temperate regions of South America. He is nocturnal in habits, sleeping in his underground home during the day, and coming out at night to seek for food. This underground home is rather large, and the nursery is well protected from enemies by its location. In it the mother armadillo rears her young until they are large enough to care for themselves.
All species of the armadillos are powerful burrowers, and they are well equipped for their tunnelling in the earth with strong fore limbs. They feed upon all kinds of insects and animal substances. It is claimed that the giant armadillo is a veritable grave-robber and sometimes digs up dead bodies for the purpose of eating them.
These animals are plentiful upon the savannas of South America, and they feast upon the bodies of dead cattle. So hard are their coats of armour that the Gauchos sharpen their Spanish knives, which they always carry, upon them. Should the armadillo be attacked by a man on horseback, he will burrow so rapidly that only by the quickest movements of the man can he be caught; and if he is, watch out for his terrible claws!
No animal is better protected by nature from its enemies than the pichiciago, whose scientific name is chlamyphorus truncatus. This strange little mantle-bearer wears a coat of mail which is as flexible as the human-made coats of armour of olden times, and he is as safe under its cover, which allows him perfect freedom, as if he were under the ground. He is about the size of the ordinary mole, and his general habits are not unlike those of the mole. He is an underground-dweller, with enormous fore-paws, palm-shaped, upon which are five powerful claws. These he uses to great advantage in digging in the earth for insects and for building his home. He has a small snout, reminding one of that of a pig; while his piercing little eyes are deeply hidden in his fur. He is a native of Chile, and because of his shy nature and subterranean habits is rarely seen.
The most interesting feature about this little creature is the cuirass which so perfectly protects his body. Its formation and arrangement is quite unusual; it appears like a number of squared plates of horn, tightly united to short strips of tape, which are sewed together. The cuirass is not connected with the entire body of the animal, but only on the top of the head and along the spine. It covers the entire back, and when it reaches the tail, turns downward, forming a perfect flap, which protects the hindquarters.
The various species of manis are famed for their powerful coats of armour. They, also, belong to the great group of burrowers, and their coats of mail assume both offensive and defensive characters. These mail-bearers are covered with numerous sharp-edged scales, like miniature horns, which entirely overlap one another, like shingles on a house. They are of great hardness, and form a belt which no animal of their regions can penetrate. A revolver shot will produce not the slightest effect upon the body of this iron-protected animal.
These animals are plentiful in India, and when they are molested, they deliberately wind themselves up, coil their tails over their bodies, and remain in conscious security against the fruitless blows of their enemies, who soon weary of the wounds caused from the prickly scales of impenetrable armour.
Instead of wearing heavy coats of mail, certain animals, such as the hedgehog and porcupine, prefer to wear coats covered with needles and pins. Of course, a coat of spines is used purely for protection. And against the attacks of such enemies as dogs, it proves all-sufficient, but it is a well-known fact that pumas and leopards will kill and eat porcupines at all times, paying small attention to their spines, as is shown by the number which are sometimes found sticking in the body of a porcupine-eating animal.
There are several species of this great spine-bearing family; and many of them, especially the true porcupines and the echidnas, have burrows in the ground and thus have a double means of protecting themselves. But others, such as the hedgehog, depend for their protection upon their ability to roll up into a ball, thus presenting a barbed wire protection. Still others live largely in the trees and seek by other means to protect themselves.
One of the most interesting coats of armour is that worn by the porcupine ant-eater—oft-times erroneously called porcupine or hedgehog. He is a native of Australia, and is a powerful burrower. He is marvellously protected by means of a coat of needles or spines which inflict painful wounds on the dog or other enemy that ventures to attack him. In case of danger, he curls himself up into a ball, and defies any one to come near. Not only does he possess the coat of prickles with which he defends himself, but he also has a large perforated claw or spur on each hind foot through which pours an ill-smelling liquid, and these also aid in protecting him. There are several varieties of porcupines which inhabit Asia, Africa, Southern Europe and America.
When a porcupine wishes to attack an enemy, he rushes at it backwards, and usually leaves the enemy literally covered, like a living pin-cushion, with his spines. These animals have convex skulls, short tails, and live chiefly in the warmer regions of the Old World. Those of America are different in one particular—the soles of their feet are covered with hard, bone-like tubercles, instead of being soft and smooth; there are also a number of hairs that are intermingled with the spines. The Canada porcupine has more hairs than the American, and a shorter and stumpier tail.
Another animal whose methods of defence are by means of his spines, is the hedgehog. His spines do not terminate in sharp points, like those of the porcupine, but end in tiny knobs. These are placed beneath the skin, and are like pins stuck through a cushion. The hedgehog, like the porcupine, rolls himself into a ball when attacked by enemies, and he has the additional ability of throwing himself down a hillside, like a rolling ball, and thus escaping his enemies without injury to himself. It would seem that the hedgehog, rolled into a ball and covered with prickles, would be protected from all enemies. But this is not true, for the clever fox knows just how to make him unroll. This one secret of the hedgehog's weakness very often causes his loss of life. His weakness is a terror of being wet or dropped into water; and when the fox finds him all rolled up, he carefully rolls him into a pond of water and, when he unrolls, quickly drowns him. Notwithstanding the shortness of the hedgehog's spines, he is the most highly specialised of all spine-bearing animals. In the lower order of animals there are spiny mice and spiny rats, and even the horned toad uses his horns as a means of protection against his enemies.
One of the most peculiarly armoured animals is the horned lizard, commonly known as the "horned toad" of America. His body is covered with small spiny scales, while the chisel-shaped head has a circlet of miniature horns. These he uses when attacked by enemies to shield himself against bites and knocks. The Indians claim that if a snake swallows the horned lizard whole, the lizard will immediately work his way through the snake. This would not be without a parallel, however, for it is generally known that box-fishes, when swallowed by sharks, bite their way out!
Nature has been especially kind to horned lizards, and that is the reason there are so many of them. They well know the secret of the Gyges ring, and can put on the garment of invisibility in a very short time. They especially frequent the desert regions of the South and West; and those that dwell in black sandy regions are black; those of red clay regions are red; those of grey regions, grey; those from the variously coloured regions of blue and red are precisely the colour of the earth. But not satisfied with all their protections of armour and camouflage, they actually, when hard-pressed by an enemy, feign death, like an opossum! And if the enemy persists in his attack, and Mr. Lizard cannot escape, as a final effort he spurts tears of blood from his eyes. The Mexicans call him the "sacred toad." The phenomenon of blood-shooting has been explained in various ways, all of which seem equally unsatisfactory. So far it is one of Nature's secrets. Perhaps some day we may understand it.
The tortoises are among the best examples of creatures which to-day protect themselves with armour. They are, of course, reptiles, yet in the general formation of their armour, they are strikingly like armadillos. The tortoise has his armour so arranged over his body that it forms one big box. He draws his head and limbs into this whenever danger is near. In Texas recently I found a small land terrapin, and as soon as I came near, he closed his house. I picked him up, and then carefully laid him upside down on the ground, and stepped behind some nearby bushes to see what he would do. Immediately he poked his head out, and then his feet, and then he began to wave his feet wildly in air, and finally threw himself in the right position and hastened away through the grass.
The turtle protects himself in the same way, and draws his head, feet, and tail under his own house-roof where nothing can get him.
Lobsters and crabs are excellent types of armour-bearing animals. Lobsters wear marvellous coats of mail, very similar to those worn by human warriors during the age of chivalry. Their jointed structure assures them perfect ease and security. Crabs, however, believe, as the tortoise, in the strong-box protection. When resting, crabs tuck their legs beneath them, so as to shelter themselves under the hard covering. Upon crabs Nature has bestowed twin protective characteristics: namely, they are armoured, and also mimic their surroundings. The latter protection is especially needful, because certain big fishes, like the cod, are in the habit of swallowing crabs whole. In this case the armour is of no use, while the protective resemblance saves the crab.
To discuss in detail all the various kinds of armour and mail that the different groups of animals have used and developed for offensive and defensive purposes since the days of the prehistoric gigantic armadillos to the present, would require a book of itself. It is sufficient to know that armour and mail and spines are among Nature's most common forms of protection, and that each age develops new and ever more efficient methods of defence. This simply means that the age-long drama of evolution is always changing. Everything that is came out of that which was, and throughout the ages the ever-evolving organisms have been developing out of the past, that they might ever be new.
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Dixon, Royal, 2006. The Human Side of Animals. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from

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