Armadillos aren’t what you’d call cute and cuddly: Their beady eyes, scaly skin, and bony shell give them the appearance of a rat masquerading as a lobster.
But the mammals are pretty tough when they roll into a protective ball, which is why Brazil picked a Brazilian three-banded armadillo named Fuleco as the mascot for the 2014 World Cup.
A Legacy of Leprosy
Different though we may seem, humans and armadillos share an unfortunate similarity—we’re the only animals that can naturally contract Hansen’s disease, better known as leprosy.
Leprosy is caused by the Mycobacterium leprae bacterium. This nasty bug prefers slightly cooler temperatures, which is why in humans it causes serious damage to the extremities. Unfortunately for our armored friends, armadillos tend to have a lower core body temperature than most mammals. This means the bacterium is free to go crazy throughout their body cavity, eventually causing organ failure and death.
“But in order to contract leprosy from an armadillo,” said Loughry, “I always tell people you really have to want to, because it’s not easy to get it.”
In other words, unless you butcher an armadillo while you have open wounds on your hands, you’re unlikely to catch leprosy from one of these animals.
If only the same were true for the armadillos. By sequencing the bacterium’s genome, scientists have determined that leprosy didn’t exist in the New World until Europeans arrived.
Surprisingly Brazil has a larger problem with Hansen's disease than India based on population - even with a early detection test and a cure.