Alien Invaders: Armadillos in the Midwest

Nine-banded ArmadilloBy Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

Many people who don’t live in the Ozarks are surprised to learn that there are armadillos here. This is obviously because most people do not associate these odd animals with the mid-south, but rather think of them as creatures from such dry states as Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.  While I never thought much about armadillos before I came here, I have come to learn the hard way that they are both an intriguing and terribly frustrating creature.  And while I am a self-avowed animal lover, I must admit that my frustration with this scaly critter has occasionally reached murderous proportions.

Out in the garden early one morning, I find yet another round of nighttime shenanigans by our resident armadillo.  “Fat”, as we’ve come to call him, has once again dug numerous holes throughout the beds.  I curse under my breath as I repair the damage and replace the mulch around the young plants.  Yet, I have to stop myself from thoughts of murder, for Fat hasn’t actually uprooted anything in my garden.  In fact, every single “dig” is between the plants.  I scratch my head in wonder.

Armadillos are definitely a strange kind of creature and one that isn’t native to these Ozark hills.  Distantly related to anteaters and sloths, armadillos are native to South and Central America, where twenty different species exist.  Here in the US, only the Nine-Banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) is a permanent resident.

Armadillo in Spanish means “little armored one” due to the bony plates that cover its legs, head and body.  These plates are not just bony, the are actually made of bone!  The nine-banded species is so named for the nine, flexible bands across the midsection, which allows it to be relatively nimble.

And while they can definitely be a nuisance, armadillos are also pretty incredible animals that have evolved with some very unusual and creative methods of survival, including the ability to dig quickly and deeply to evade predators.  Because armadillos only have a few small stubby teeth and a long probing tongue like an anteater, they generally eat soft-bodied insects, earthworms and grubs.  However, if the occasion arises, armadillos will also eat small snakes, lizards and occasionally carrion.

To scientists, of the most fascinating things about armadillos are their reproductive abilities.  Female armadillos bear exactly four, genetically identical quadruplets of the same sex.  In fact, each of the four young originate from the same egg and share the same placenta – no other mammal on earth can do that.

Surprisingly enough, armadillos also like to swim.  By taking in large amounts of air into their lungs to make them more buoyant, they can easily dogpaddle for some distance.  If that doesn’t strike you as odd, what may is the fact that when these bulky, armor-plated desert dwellers are faced with a body of water they actually prefer to walk across the bottom while holding their breath, which they can do for up to six minutes.

Of course, it is common to see armadillos lying dead on the side of the road – where they seem to remain almost completely intact for months on end – but it isn’t because they aren’t fast enough, it’s because they don’t see very well and have a tendency to jump straight up – sometimes as high as four feet – when startled.  Jumping is a good thing to do to evade predators, but not such a good thing to do in front of or underneath a moving vehicle.

In fact, armadillos have such poor eyesight that they often walk right by and sometimes directly into people, dogs and other predators, completely unaware of their presence.  But once alerted to danger an armadillo can move surprisingly fast, and when necessary, defend itself with dangerously sharp claws.

9-banded-armadillo-swimmingWhile normally docile, armadillos manage to strike fear into some people.  This is because armadillos, humans and three types of primates are the only creatures in the world that can contract and spread leprosy – a bacterial infection also known as Hansen’s disease.

According to an article in Science Magazine, in some places up to 20% of the armadillo population carries leprosy, but that infection of humans by armadillos is “miniscule”.  The article states that of the 150 people diagnosed with leprosy in the US each year, only 30 to 50 of those are thought to have contracted the disease from armadillos.

Although this particular article states that leprosy can be transmitted via blood or undercooked armadillo meat, every other source I found contends that leprosy is only transmitted through close contact with nasal discharge and possibly, though unproven, through contact with areas of infected skin.  It is worth noting that 95% of humans are naturally immune to the disease and leprosy is easily and effectively treatable with common antibiotics.

Because armadillos are primarily nocturnal animals, we seldom see Fat at his treachery in the garden.  But each time I wake to discover his nighttime rampages, I curse him to the wind and proclaim my intent to introduce him to our rifle.  But Dean continually reminds me that even as he digs, Fat is eating tons of destructive insects and grubs, particularly those of Japanese Beetles.  The holes that he digs may be frustrating, but in the end Fat is doing us a service – even if we don’t always appreciate it.

Although Fat remains unrepentant in his ways, we have come to accept his handiwork and see him as something more than just an annoyance.  And although  I like to rant and rave about doing him in, I never seem to get around to it – I guess it keeps us both on our toes.

Find more interesting armadillos facts at Armadillos Online

© 2013 Jill Henderson

A Journey of SeasonsIf you liked this story, you might like my book

A Journey of Seasons

Set in the rugged heart of the Missouri Ozarks, A Journey of Seasons is a beautifully recounted memoir filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor by author, naturalist and organic gardener, Jill Henderson.

Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.

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20 responses to “Alien Invaders: Armadillos in the Midwest

  1. Your generosity toward armadillos is to be applauded Jill. My gardening experience in the country with them has had me questioning my love of animals. Many times I have reconstructed their destruction sites over and over. Replanting and revamping gardens seemed to be a constant. I knew they were looking for grubs in that fresh, loamy soil but it never reached the appreciation stage. Someone once said they would be scared off if I kept watch, snuck up and hit them with a stick (not hard but just enough to frighten them). So, I began that night. Sure enough……there was the destroyer of the work I’d done that very day. I took my handy, waiting stick and tip-toed out to the garden (in my robe and knee-high rubber boots) in the dark. I hit him (not hard). He screamed, I screamed as he jumped into the air right in front of me then waddled off pretty fast for a waddler. I was left with dirt all over me from his diggings and a heart beating mighty fast. Thanks for all that wonderful information Jill but I’m just glad they haven’t uprooted your plants like they did mine. Once they find a spot they love – they’ll always come back. Guess I’m not qualified to say I’m an animal-lover any more (or else I’ve just got one exception).

    • Great story, Jerre, it made me laugh! I can just see you out there sneaking up on that armadillo in the dark – just wonderful. I definitely know they can be both extremely frustrating and destructive, driving some to build fences that would make Ft Knox look like Disneyland. But like most things that are destructive, I just try to keep my sense of wonder (an humor, when possible) intact – otherwise I would probably go insane. And I know that despite your encounters with these little armored digging machines that you will always be an animal lover. 🙂

  2. Jill, Jerre’s story is one of the most hilarious I have ever heard! When we lived in TX, had a friend down to visit from CO, he asked what those dead animals were on the roadside – when we told him armadillos – he scoffed saying that armadillos were fantasy creatures like jackalopes and griffins- we finally had to stop at the next road kill and prove to him that ,yes ,this was an armadillo! Hope you can keep Fat out of your garden! K

    • I thought so, too, Kathleen. And if you knew sweet Jerre like I do, it would be even more hilarious! I love the robe and rubber boots! I can relate to your funny story, too – I grew up in southern Louisiana where the bayous are filled with giant alligator gars – long, torpedo-shaped fish with armor-plated scales and long thin snouts filled with sharp teeth! My husband, a SoDaker, thought for years that I was pulling his leg about gars! Some things are truly stranger than fiction! LOL

  3. Jill, another great narrative. If you ever need a copyeditor for one of your books, keep me in mind!

  4. I don’t care what anyone says, I think armadillos are really cute. And although I’m not a proponent of trying to domesticate wild animals, I’m wondering if you’ve ever heard of anyone keeping an armadillo as a pet?

    • Anthony, I think they’re pretty cute, too. They’ve got that little ardvark face only a mother could love! I don’t know anyone who has kept them as pets – as I understand it, they give off a strong musky odor that’s not really pleasant to be around. Also, armadillos have very low body temperatures and must be able to get warm when needed. They also have to eat alot and often to keep their metabolism high to stay warm. Oh, and they are primarily insectivors, so obtaining enough food could also be tricky. That being said, I personally don’t think it’s ever a good idea to keep a wild animal as a pet – I’d rather just enjoy seeing them in their natural environment.

  5. How does one romanticise a creature, that by most accounts, has been determined to be, a vector for the contraction of leprosy in humans.

    • I understand that sentiment, Randall, but we have to take in all of the facts before condeming one small creature. The fact is that the two species of bacteria that cause leprosy do not originate or exist solely with armadillos. In fact, a large percentage of the people who contract leprosy live in countries where armadillos do not and never have existed. It has been noted that humans are the prime vector for the spread of the bacteria that cause leprosy. I was recently told that these bacteria are naturally present on human skin at all times – the reason more people don’t contrat Hansen’s disease are two fold: First, 95% of humans have developed natural immunities to the bacteria. Secondly, in this day and age treatment for leprosy is easily and quickly achieved through the use of simple antibiotics, which slows or stops the spread of the virus via human contact. So, in the end, the percentag of people infected from armadillos is miniscule and they should not be demonized as the cause of leprosy.

  6. I had read many years ago that researchers actually gave leprosy to armadillos in their “quest” for cures! A few got loose from the research center (in TX if I remember correctly) and therin lies the armadillos contract leprosy! Another stupid thing done to a species by evil scientists.
    Article that the Armadillo’s underbellies resemble soft tissue of humans.

    • Armadillos being used as research animals is definitely true – in fact, one of the ways that drugs to cure leprosy were developed was through the use of research animals such as mice (the bacteria are cultivated on their footpads, but the bacterium are not a natural occurance in mice) and a few very specific species of monkey, armadillos, and of course, humans – all of which are natural carriers of the bacteria. However, the notion that scientists in Texas released leprosy on the world is false. Ancient human cases of leprosy have been well documented and the oldest human skeleton with signs of leprosy is over 4,000 years old! It is worth repeating again, that 95% of all humans are naturally immune to the bacteria that cause leprosy, so there is truly little to fear.

  7. Try going to alpha and asking them to leave, but give them a place to go. Thank them but say they are causing issues and you want them to relocate. If you can’t do this, find somebody like an animal whisperer or dowser who can. Works for ants, gophers, etc.

    • Interesting that you would mention this, Tom. I have actually done this for years with all kinds of creatures, including wasps (which I still have a slight fear of). Some people may think that it’s a crazy idea, but I know from experience that it works – after all, all living creatures are sentient beings. Thanks for sharing this gentle method of dealing with creatures that you’d rather not have hang around too closely.

  8. 3.24.13
    Hi Jill:

    Neat story Butt; I have a few questions.
    “By taking in large amounts of air into their lungs to make them more buoyant”

    “they actually prefer to walk across the bottom while holding their breath,”

    They sound like tricky little critters, One minute they float the next they are a lead weight.

    Also I rank armadillos with Rats,Snakes,cockroaches and recluse spiders. I would not touch one or the ground they burrow in. Hate to blow the bubble is it time for me to get off your cloud?


    • Well, they are tricky little critters, Al! It’s what makes them so interesting! And your repulsion to critters and crawlies don’t burst my cloud at all – I love to look for the beauty and complexity in those things that some see as creepy, weird or strange. 🙂

  9. I really do not think Southern Missouri, South of 1-44 is considered Midwest, more like Mid-South. From Springfield we are only 5 hours to the Texas border, about 45 minutes to Arkansas and about the same to Oklahoma. During the civil war (we were both a Southern and Northern state) and its the same for our growing seasons depending on what hardiness zone chart you use. We are 5a in northern parts of Missouri to 7a in Southern Parts of the state. The northern part of the state is bordered by Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, while the Southern is bordered by Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Kentucky. So Armadillos in the southern part is not a shocker, we have Southern Magnolias, Ashe Junipers (only other native growing area is Texas), Crepe Mytle, Redbud, even live oak along the Arkansas border etc., all very southern plants. In addition, we are in subtropical, transitional, humid as far as our continental climate goes and thats pretty much 1-44 Rolla south to Middle of Kentucky south to Little Rock and as far west as Tulsa. You have a point with Missouri, most of it is Midwest, but the Ozarks is generally considered mid-south. You’ll even detect a slight twang from the locals as you drive south of I-44.

    But thanks for all the great articles, had to put my two cents in for the south.

    Springfield, MO

    • Hi Joe, thanks for your comments. Being a true southerner from south Louisiana and having lived in Arkansas and currently living 30 miles from the Arkansas border in the heart of the Ozarks region, I can attest to the fact that the southern portion of Missouri does, at times, feel like and resemble the South in many ways. But at the same time, it’s entirely different – not Southern, not Midwest, but an amalgamation of the two. I refer to the Ozarks as the Midwest because geographically, Missouri is a Midwestern state. Of course, armadillos are not native to any part of Missouri or even the United States. Over the last 150 years, armadillos have slowly but methodically spread northward from their Central American origins. Predictions for the continuation of their spread include parts of Illinois, New York state and even New England! To read more about armadillo expansion in the US, check out this very informative page:

  10. Lynnwe Pridham

    I saw a dead armadillo in front of my house in the street in Rochester N.Y last year. I picked him up and put him in the garbage. I could not stand seeing him smashed.!

    • Hi, Lynnwe. It’s hard to believe that these desert dwelling creatures have reached NY and survived the cold winters there, but they have and will continue to spread across the country with time. It’s a testament to their rugged character. Unfortunately, they don’t see well and jump up in response to threats, like cars, which is often to their demise. We see a lot of them killed on the roads here and after a very cold winter, we often find them dead in the woods, too.

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