That, pictured above, is an armadillo. And if for some reason you wanted to eat one, apparently, they’re “fabulous” — “[t]hink of the best turkey or goose you’ve ever had … but much, much better,” according to a Chowhound user who feasted, unknowingly, on armadillo legs.
But eating armadillos comes with a rare risk, one that few other delicacies may subject you to: leprosy.
Leprosy is a disease caused by the bacteria mycobacterium leprae, which may result in nerve damage and/or disfigurement. Historically, contracting leprosy resulted in being placed into forced quarantine, in order to prevent further spread of the disease. But as the disease is now curable if caught early, such extreme action is no longer common, at least not in Western societies. (There are still leper colonies in various nations in Southeast Asia, Northern Africa, and Eastern Europe; according to a 2007 report by the BBC, there are more than 1,000 leper colonies in India alone.) The disease is incredibly rare in the United States — there are only about 6,500 cases in the United States currently, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Leprosy is typically spread by coming into contact with the saliva of a person already infected with the disease.
But a few years back, according to CNN, an 81 year old woman in Mississippi was diagnosed with leprosy, even though she almost certainly never came in contact with a person carrying the disease. Her dermatoloigist, Dr. John Abide, told CNN that armadillos are likely to blame. Mycobacterium lepae requires a certain environment in which to thrive, and armadillos and humans are two of the unique places the bacteria can survive. The bacteria is very hard to culture — it does not survive in petri dishes — but the bacteria finds that the relatively low body temperature of the armadillo makes for a suitable home.
In April of 2011, federal researchers determined that the leprosy-causing bacteria found in armadillos was the same which had infected Americans in the southern United States, according to the New York Times. As noted in the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, clusters of leprosy-infected people in Louisiana and Texas were never exposed to outsiders with the disease but had a genetically identical strain of the bacteria as that found in regional armadillos.
As a precaution, Dr. Abide told CNN that he advises people not to eat or touch armadillos, even to the extreme point of not purchasing items made from their carcasses. Because leprosy is difficult to diagnose early, and because not treating it early on can lead to permanent nerve damage, his advice may be well-heeded.
Bonus fact: Nine-banded armadillos, the most wide-ranging type of armadillo, have an odd reproductive trait: they always have quadruplets. The female releases a single egg and, when it becomes fertilized, it splits twice, creating four genetically identical embryos each with its own placenta.
From the Archives: Pellagra: A leprosy-like disease not caused by armadillos.
Related: If you really need an armadillo tchotchkie, here’s a tacky one – and it’s made out of resin, so it’s leprosy-free.