Armadillos make themselves at home

Armadillos, like this captive one at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ Webb Wildlife Center near Garnett, could be making their way slowly to the Lowcountry.

The first armadillos were spotted in the Lowcountry in the late 1990s — usually as roadkill. The word was they wouldn’t get much farther: Winters across most of South Carolina are just too cold for them to tolerate.

Well, the “dumb” armadillo dumfounded biologists. The animal considered too clueless to avoid traffic has made its way up U.S. Highway 17 along the coast and apparently into North Carolina. It’s working up Interstate 26 toward Columbia. No way, you say? A whole different population has moved onto the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee — nearly 2,000 feet in elevation. They’re also being found at similar elevations in mountain counties in far western North Carolina.

“We’re starting to think if they can live there, they can live everywhere but the High Smokies,” said Timothy Gaudin, University of Tennessee-Chattanooga biologist who filmed one of creatures in February near Sewanee, Tenn.

“I really think for the most part they are getting here on their own,” said Colleen Olfenbuttel, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologist.

There you have it. The animal that challenges oncoming cars by leaping straight up in the air isn’t as stupid as you thought.

“We tend to laugh at them,” said Dean Harrigal, an S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologist. “But in reality they have it figured out. They’re survivors.”

The nine-banded armadillo found in the Southeast is the same one normally associated with the more arid landscape of Texas. It’s been described a “possum on a half shell” or as a platypus in a conquistador helmet. And sure, those helmets and its bulbous snout give the animal an exotic weirdness, even a charm for people.

That’s until it burrows its way through their gardens, lawns and any other loose dirt, looking for grubs.

The armadillo is eaten by some peoples; it’s said to taste like pork. But not much messes with it in the wild. Gators and panthers will take adults; bobcats, coyotes and hawks will take the young. But the animal’s biggest threat apparently has four treaded tires.

The creature has become enough of a pest here that DNR regularly fields complaints and hunting is open season on private land; the state even allows night hunting for them with a permit, as it does for the similar troublemaker invasive species of feral hogs and coyotes.

Armadillos were thought to prefer warm, wetland habitats. But their chief preference might simply be places where they can forage steadily. They can burrow to escape temporary hard cold spells. They are now found at least as far north as southern Indiana, Illinois, Kansas and Missouri.

“The cold thing doesn’t seem to be working as predicted,” Gaudin observed dryly.

The animals weren’t thought to migrate, just get pushed into new range as the population grows. How they came East is debatable; some say they were transported — deliberately or not — and some say they simply waddled.

But they don’t seem to let much stop them. They’ve been shown to be able to hold their breath for six minutes at a time and have been seen dog paddling across the Rio Grande River.

Climate warming has been suggested as one reason why they’re moving. But they’re way out ahead of any real changes in temperature.

The bottom line, Gaudin said, is “we don’t really know. There’s not a lot of basic data.” As just one example, armadillos are thought to mate in their burrows underground, but that’s simply because nobody has ever documented a mating.

“They’re very adaptable. You wouldn’t think so, but they are,” Gaudin said.

DNR biologist Harrigal puts them in the same category as fire ants.

“They’re here. Learn to live with them, or deal with them, or both,” he said.

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