The state small mammal of Texas has been heading our way for a few years now and by observation accounts to the North Carolina Wildlife Commission, some have made it! Armadillos were spotted in South Carolina in the late 1990’s, and word was they would not get as far as North Carolina because our winters are too cold for them to tolerate. Well, SURPRISE! This nocturnal, omnivorous mammal covered in bony plates has dumfounded biologists. The animal considered not intelligent enough to avoid traffic has made its way up U.S. Highway 17 along the coast into the Tar Heel state, and witnesses have observed an armadillo leaping three to four feet straight up in the air to avoid an oncoming car. There are different species of armadillo, but the one moving into our area is the Nine-banded Armadillo. They have also been found in mountain counties in far western North Carolina, which begs us to think, if they can live in high elevations like the Smokies, they can live anywhere. There is debate on their method of arrival, though. Are they being transported, deliberately or not, or are they waddling their way here? The biggest deterrent for the presence of armadillos is weather because the animals can’t endure prolonged cold and frozen soil, but our mild winters as of late have opened the door for Nine-Banded Armadillo travel. Their presence is well established in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, and it was always believed the “armored” brownish-gray animal the size of an opossum or housecat could only thrive in warm, wetland habitats and preferably the arid landscape of Texas, but now we know, it ain’t so! Even farther north, Illinois and Indiana, are experiencing the arrival of the NB Armadillo. Maybe the weather isn’t as important as the abundance of fresh water, forests, bugs and critters to eat, although frozen ground makes foraging for grubs almost impossible. Armadillos need to be able to forage steadily. Since they are coming and some are already here, the staff at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport need to become knowledgeable on the topic of Armadillo rehabilitation and how to raise orphaned Armadillos, so we have taken on the task to learn everything we can about the new wildlife coming our way. As with all wildlife, the need to wear our personal protective equipment (PPE) will be required to ensure anything zoonotic will not be passed from animal to human. This pre-historic and exotic looking little creature with a bulbous snout that we are now learning about has been given quite a few nick-names; Texas Turkey, Armored Pig, Possum on a Half Shell, Hoover Hog, Rabbit Turtle which is a name given them by the ancient Aztecs, and they are also described as a “Platypus in a conquistador helmet.” The Nine-banded Armadillo weighs between 5 and 14 pounds and is 25 – 42 inches long, including the tail. They have short legs, but can move rather quickly. Their body is covered by nonoverlapping scales that are connected by flexible bands of skin. The shell or armor covers the back, sides, head, tail and outer sides of the legs. Their underbelly protection is comprised of thick skin and coarse hair, and they have long, shovel like claws for digging. We now know the Armadillo is a very adaptable animal that primarily feeds on invertebrates such as insects, snails and earthworms. They forage for meals while making snorting noises by thrusting their snouts into loose soil and leaves and frantically dig to surface grubs, beetles, carrion with maggots, ants, termites and those juicy worms, which their sensitive noses can detect through eight inches of soil. They are amazing in their uniqueness! Although the NBA can’t roll itself into a ball as other armadillos, such as the Three-banded can, it will inflate its intestines to float or dog-paddle across a river or it may choose to hold its breath for up to six minutes while sinking into the water and running underwater across the riverbed. Their teeth are similar to those of sloths and anteaters; all small molars, no incisors and no enamel. Armadillos live in eight-inch entranced burrows that can be seven feet deep and 25 feet long. They will mark their territory with urine, feces and excretions from scent glands found on their feet, nose and eyelids. If there is a territorial dispute, a bit of kicking and chasing will usually end it. Breeding takes place during July and August producing a litter of four optimally. As reptilian as an Armadillo may look, they are mammals and will nurse the infants for about three months before the youngsters begin foraging for food with Mom. They will stay with Mom, the sole provider, for six months to a year. NBA’s will be sexually mature at one year and will reproduce every year throughout their 12-15 year lifespan. That’s a lot of babies and could be one of the reasons for the species expansion north! Although Armadillos can wreck havoc with gardens and root systems while they forage or create elaborate burrows, on the positive side, they eat pesky bugs, create habitats for other wildlife and are known to bring more song birds to an area because birds, such as warblers, will follow and hang out with Armadillos. The birds will capitalize on the NBA’s unearthing of insects and invertebrates to supplement their own nutritional needs. Not many animals mess with Armadillos in the wild, so they have few real predators, but although it’s not easy, alligators and panthers have been known to partake in an adult NBA or two. Infant Nine-banded Armadillos are at risk of predation by bobcats, coyotes and hawks. But of course, the greatest threat for an Armadillo has treaded tires and rolls in the form of trucks, cars and motorcycles. Like opossums, the NBA, has the unfortunate tendency to stare at approaching headlights, so although armadillos can jump, it’s not always high or fast enough to win the vehicular battle. These solitary, dinosaur era animals may look a little funny or downright odd, but they are survivors and have been around for 50 million years!! Ok, so they’re not cute balls of fluff. They still need protection, cover, water and loose soil for stirring up some food, and North Carolina has all of that. We used to say, “They Are Coming!” but now we know “They Are Here!
Author of “Save Them All“