WHAT do you think this strange-looking creature could be? A dragon? A curious visitor from another planet? A prehistoric monster? Actually, it is a statue in a park in St. Petersburg, Fla., designed and constructed by a local artist, Paul Eppling. Mr. Eppling worked on the project for three years before he completed it in 1980. About 12 feet long, if you include the curling tail, and 6 feet tall, this odd figure is made entirely of discarded automobile and machine parts.

What does the statue that guards a nature trail in the park represent? Not just a fantastic creation by the artist but a real live animal. It is a mammoth replica of the armadillo, a small mammal about the size of the average house cat that is a native of Florida and of other southern parts of the United States, as well as Central and South America.

The fierce eyes of this metal figure are cogs of wheels. The snout is a drive shaft from a car. The legs and head are covered with overlapping scraps of steel that have been put together cleverly to resemble scales. The body is a series of rings and shiny plates welded to form what appears to be a coat of armor.

If you were to walk down the path, chances are you would meet an armadillo in person. You'd notice that it, too, was covered with a shield formed by interlocking bands of a hard shell-like substance. In fact, the Spanish word armadillo means ``little armored one.''

Millions of years ago these mammals, huge in size then, roamed about among the other dinosaurs that inhabited our earth. They thrashed their long spiked tails if they needed to defend themselves. Today, however, this small creature is far from brave. As you approach, the armadillo may not see or hear you, but its excellent sense of smell will soon send a warning that you are near. Then this shy animal will do one of three things automatically: (1) run away on its stubby legs; (2) roll up into a ball and be protected by its crusty outer shell; or (3) quickly dig a burrow and disappear from sight before you quite realize what is happening. Hidden in the hole it has made, the animal arches its back to form a wedge so tight you can't pry it loose. There the timid and elusive armadillo will remain until very sure that danger has passed.

The armadillo has one other means of defense in case of emergency. If a body of water is near, it will jump in, swallow enough air to fill stomach and intestines, and float for a while. If still pursued, it is able to drop to the bottom of the stream and stroll across to the other side - a trick that really baffles!

You may never be able to approach a real armadillo closely enough to touch the armor it wears. But perhaps someday you can come and pet this statue. You can be sure it won't run away!

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