The giant armadillo favors untouched primary forest, close to water sources, and therefore Tambopata National Reserve constitutes its ideal habitat.
As its name suggests, the giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus) is the world’s largest living armadillo species. Known in South America by many local names, including tatú, tatú carreta, pejichi, cabazú and cachicamo, this remarkable looking mammal can grow up to 1.5 meters in length and weigh as much as 45 kilograms. In the wild, it is believed to live for between 12 and 15 years.
The giant armadillo is found in South America from Venezuela to northern Argentina, and from Ecuador to the Guyanas and eastern Brazil. However, it has traditionally been hunted for its meat and has suffered additionally from habitat loss. These factors have combined to make it very rare throughout its natural range, and the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classifies it as vulnerable, with studies indicating that its numbers are declining throughout its range. It has also been targeted by the illegal pet trade, despite the fact that it tends not to survive for long in captivity.
Although the giant armadillo has more teeth than any other of the world’s mammal species –up to one hundred- it feeds mainly on termites and ants. Once it encounters a termite mound, it is capable of consuming the entire population of the colony in a single feeding session. It has fearsome front claws, proportionately longer than those of any other mammal, with which it can quickly demolish the most hard-baked of termite mounds, in search of its tiny prey. It also uses its claws to dig burrows in sand banks and abandoned or active termite mounds, where it will spend much of its time underground. In addition, when necessary it can of course use those same claws to defend itself.
Protected by its hard shell-like structure, which is composed of between eleven and thirteen movable bands around the body and a further three or four bands around the neck, the only natural predators the giant armadillo need fear in the forests of South America are the jaguar and puma. The banded arrangement of its body and neck allows for remarkable flexibility, and giant armadillos are also said to be good swimmers.
Unlike some other species of armadillo, the giant armadillo cannot roll into a ball to protect itself from attack. Instead, normally it will try to flee or dig itself a burrow in which to hide. When cornered, however, in common with the almost equally daunting looking giant anteater, the giant armadillo will raise itself on its hind legs, using its tail to maintain balance, and extend its long front claws, ready to attack.