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Armadillos: So many flower beds, so little time

This nine-banded armadillo seeks food in Texas. Scientists have fingered the 
nine-banded armadillo as the likely culprit in the spread of leprosy in the southern United States.

This nine-banded armadillo seeks food in Texas. Scientists have fingered the nine-banded armadillo as the likely culprit in the spread of leprosy in the southern United States.

ALBANY — The little guy you found in your flower bed last night — with the long ears and bone jacket — is marching north, and no one seems to know how far he’ll go.

The nine-banded armadillo, considered by many with gardens to be a nuisance, is none-the-less an interesting and resourceful little critter. Before around 1850 few Americans were aware of armadillos, as none were known to exist north of the Rio Grande river. Despite being capable swimmers, experts believe the first American armadillos were transported live across the river, probably to provide a meal.

Regardless of their origin, for decades D. novemcinctus flourished mostly in Texas and Louisiana. It’s known that in Florida in 1924 a few of the mammals, which are related to anteaters and sloths, were released from a zoo, with several more escaping from a circus in 1936. Its believed that the large nine-banded armadillo population now in Florida originated with those animals. For decades more, neighboring southern states seemed spared from the onslaught of the armored opossum-sized invader from south of the border.

Ben Kirkland, natural resource manager for Chehaw Park in Albany, said that when he first came to the park in 1986 he was unaware of armadillos in south Georgia.

“I just woke up one morning and the armadillos were here,” Kirkland said.

According to Kirkland, the strange little critters have little to offer as redeeming qualities for humans. In addition to digging up cultivated gardens, armadillos are known to carry a variety of diseases, including rabies and leprosy.

“We don’t know how smart they are,” Kirkland said, “because we haven’t made a scale that low. They just do what they do, which is tear up yards and gardens looking for grubs. If you’ve been working in your garden they can smell the fresh soil and come to visit at night. Needless to say, it can get you a little perturbed.”

Kirkland said the best thing for a garden is to eliminate either the armadillos, which aren’t protected in Georgia, or the grubs in the soil to accomplish the same purpose.

“A lot of people like the humane concept of cage traps,” Kirkland said, “but traps don’t work. They aren’t very effective for armadillos and the animal may come back.”

Kirkland did say that for those who try cage traps, the best placement for them are as close as possible to the armadillo den, using overripe or spoiled fruit as bait. The dens are generally under some type of cover, Kirkland said, such as a shrub, the base of a tree or a picnic table.

“The entrances are six to seven inches wide,” Kirkland said, “and perfectly round. Gopher tortoise holes have dome-shaped roofs and are flat on the bottoms of the holes.” Kirkland warns that gopher tortoises are protected by the state of Georgia.

Morgan and Kirkland agree as well that armadillos should be handled with care if handled at all, as the animals present some definite dangers to humans. Reported cases of rabies contracted from armadillos are rare, according to animal experts, probably because the shy animals rarely bite. Nonetheless, the possibility exists the disease could be transmitted from a scratch.

Almost equally concerning is evidence that nine-banded armadillos can transmit leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, to humans. While armadillos have long been known to harbor the ancient disease (the only animal, other than humans), its only recently the link has been established.

About 150 Americans are diagnosed each year with Hansen’s disease, with most of the cases coming from travel in other countries. About a third of the cases are unexplained, however, except that most of the victims reside in Texas or Louisiana where leprosy-infected armadillos live.

“The preponderance of evidence shows that people get leprosy from these animals,” said Richard W. Truman, director of microbiology at the National Hansen’s Disease Program in Baton Rouge. “We’re able to provide a link.”

Truman was able to show strong evidence of the link in working with 29 leprosy patients participating in the program. Truman said that contact with the animals should be avoided.

“That doesn’t mean that people need to run away from armadillos the way they do a rattlesnake,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Health, which helped fund Truman’s research. “You shoot an armadillo and try to skin it — that’s the worst thing you could do.”

Armadillos are best observed and admired from a distance, most experts believe. Its true the critters are nothing short of unique, and well adapted to survival.

Aside from their natural and impressive armor, the shy animals are capable of holding their breath for up to six minutes at a time, according to some authorities, as they swim or even walk across the bottom of a shallow stream. As an alternative, armadillos can inflate their intestines and hitch a ride down a fast-moving stream. Armadillos are born as genetically identical quadruplets — the fertilized egg dividing twice before the birth.

Armadillos have now migrated well beyond their original range of 100 or even 50 years ago, spilling into north Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky the Carolinas and beyond. Experts assume there will be a stopping point, as the critter with its low metabolic rate and lack of fat stores is poorly adapted to cold. According to The National Geographic magazine, “spates of inclement weather could wipe out whole populations.”

Still, the adaptable armadillo has surprised before.