August 15, 2014

Armadillos have arrived — despite their roadkill ways

After steady movement north over years, armadillos are now north of the Missouri River. The only armored mammal, they’re kind of cute, in a gladiator sort of way, Conservationists, though, warn of yard and garden damage from rooting.

Ask someone around here if they’ve seen an armadillo and they’re likely to ask back, “Alive?”

Dead ones. That’s all we seem to see in Missouri and Kansas. That’s because these nocturnal animals, whose name in Spanish means “little armored one,” may be able to cross a stream by gulping enough air to walk across on the bottom, but they’re not very good at crossing highways.

When startled by a vehicle, they spring straight up on those short, squatty legs. How do you say “70-mph bumper” in Spanish?

“That’s why we see so many dead ones on the highways,” said Todd Meese, a wildlife damage biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

According to National Geographic, the armadillo’s propensity for being run over on southern highways earned it the nickname “hillbilly speed bump.”

The roadkill numbers are likely to go up because for some unknown reason — choose global warming if you want to pick a fight — armadillos are continuing their march to the north. A migration that began decades earlier has now put the animals on the north side of the Missouri River.

Do we want them? No, conservationists say. They’re grubbers; they destroy yards, root through gardens and build tunnels.

“They are worse than anything short of feral hogs,” said Meese, who works at Burr Oak Woods Nature Center in Blue Springs. “But they’re coming. Our hope is that the cold stops them.”

Coyotes and bobcats also will help defend the homeland.

We’re fortunate the pink, nine-banded armadillo in North America — and spotted recently in Platte County — rarely weighs more than 12 pounds or so. The dark-brown giant armadillo in Latin America can grow to 5 feet long and 120 pounds. You don’t want that guy nosing around the tomato patch.

Our little armadillos are kind of cute. Sort of like a gladiator’s lap dog.

They are the only living mammal with an armored shell. Short legs, hairless, ringed tail, big ears, long nose. One researcher described it as looking like a cross between a reptile and a rabbit. They sleep 16 hours a day and use that long, sticky tongue to eat 200 pounds of insects a year. That’s good.

But there is the leprosy thing. Armadillos are known to carry the disease. But the only way it can be transferred from them to humans is if the human eats undercooked armadillo meat. Make sure, says cooks.com, that after dusting the armadillo chunks in flour, and adding the potatoes, onions and carrots, that the meat is fried clean through before serving it up to the family.

Don’t forget the bay leaf.

During the Great Depression, so many armadillos were eaten they were called “Hoover hogs.” That was mostly in the Southwest, a climate more befitting their nature. The movement north from Central America started slowly, probably arriving in Texas in the 1800s. Over time, they kept pushing the boundary.

Lynn Robbins, a biology professor at Missouri State University who has tracked their progress for years, said researchers many times concluded: “Well, this is as far as they can go.”

And then they go farther.

“We’ve had sightings in Nebraska,” Robbins said.

And why do these warmth-loving, non-hibernating animals risk winters in the upper Midwest?

“Food,” Robbins said. “Isn’t that what drives most things?”

According to his latest update in April, the animals have “advanced to the north through central Kansas, into central Illinois, south-western Indiana and western Kentucky, through central Tennessee, covering Alabama and all but the north-eastern region of Georgia, and into central South Carolina.”

Steve Porter, spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said armadillos have been spotted in every county in the state.

“A lot more than we’ve ever seen before,” Porter said. “I live in Cass County and I sure see them down there.

“Only dead ones, though. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a live one.”

To reach Donald Bradley, call 816-234-4182 or send email to dbradley@kcstar.com.

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