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Armadillos: Adaptable and troublesome

Wildlife species has become too common

The armadillo can be a worrisome pest at times. However, foresight and caution should be exercised when considering control measures.” (photo courtesy USFWS)

The armadillo can be a worrisome pest at times. However, foresight and caution should be exercised when considering control measures.” (photo courtesy USFWS)

Many are those who have looked upon a well-kept yard and found their lawns dimpled by multitudes of cone-shaped craters several inches deep and wide. Equal numbers have noticed the mulch around their shrubbery looking as if it were plowed up and scattered. The same people complain about small plants in their gardens being destroyed and flora across the entire area being uprooted.

Usually the perpetrator of such nuisance landscape alterations is a wildlife species once rare to these parts but now all too familiar.

The nine-banded armadillo is a frequent and usually unwelcomed visitor in area landscapes. It is one of 20 existing species of armadillo, originally from South America, and is the only one found in the United States.

“Armadillos may be the size of opossums, but pound for pound can do nearly as much damage as feral hogs when it comes to digging up a yard,” said wildlife biologist aide Myron Wiley. “As anyone who has seen the results of their foraging knows, they are very destructive feeders.”

The armadillo, a relative of the anteaters and sloths of South America, is primarily an insectivore. Its diet largely consists of beetles, grubs, earthworms, and various other soil-dwelling insects and invertebrates. These food items naturally attract the animal to lawns, flower beds, and gardens. It locates its prey with extremely keen senses of smell and hearing, unearths it with large claws on legs specifically adapted for digging, and captures it with thick, sticky saliva on the tongue.

“The armadillo’s appetite for insects isn’t all bad,” Wiley said. “Many of the creatures they consume are lawn and garden pests that can do considerable damage to landscapes themselves. For instance, it’s common to see a crater in the top of a fire ant mound where it has been dug open by an armadillo searching for ant eggs, larvae and adult ants.”

Armadillos are known colloquially by many common names. The bony plates covering and protecting their bodies has led to descriptions such as “armor-plated ‘possum” or “’possum crossed with a turtle.” The natural fright response of the armadillo when startled is a vertical leap before fleeing, a dangerous reflex when approached by a vehicle that might otherwise pass over without harm. This fatal trait spawned the nickname “hillbilly speed bump” and makes the animal a frequent highway casualty.

“Of course, they’re not closely related to opossums, turtles, or any other animal they’re often compared to,” said Wiley, “but some of the common references to their appearance are fairly close to the technical description. Their family name Dasypodidae roughly translates to ‘turtle-rabbit.’ ”

Prior to 1850, armadillos were not found north of the Rio Grande River except for fossilized evidence of extinct species. Due to a combination of factors such as human colonization, habitat alteration, and extirpation of natural large predators, and intentional release or escape, the armadillo has rapidly expanded its range at a rate ten times that considered normal for mammals. Now abundant throughout most of Texas and other Southern and Southeastern states (they were deliberately introduced into Florida in the 1920s), armadillos have been observed as far north as Illinois and Nebraska and westward to Colorado. Because of its abundance and wide distribution, the armadillo has become a nuisance animal to many homeowners in suburban residential locations, especially where wooded areas with favorable burrowing and nest sites are included or nearby.

Controlling armadillos on one’s property is not an easy task.

“In many cases,” Wiley explained, “it might be better to just tolerate the occasional visitor rather than take on the expense and possible collateral damage of control attempts. However, if frequent and serious damage is occurring, some action may become necessary.”

Removing individual animals by trapping and relocation/elimination, use of repellents, fencing of specific areas (fencing must extend below ground), and control of soil insects and invertebrates with pesticides are some of the armadillo-control methods most commonly recommended.

“Any of these methods has its limitations,” Wiley said. “Practicality, environmental pollution, expense, and long-term effectiveness are all major concerns. Whatever control technique is used, whether it’s mechanical or chemical, you have to be careful to use it in a manner that minimizes danger to people, pets, birds, fish and other desirable wildlife.”

If an armadillo control method involves handling an armadillo; either for relocation, consumption (yes, armadillo meat is edible), or disposal; be aware they can, albeit on rare occasions, be infected with leprosy, which may be communicable to humans by contact or the consumption of undercooked meat. Handle the animals and/or meat with sanitary culinary methods as you would any wild game to prevent contracting any communicable diseases that might be present.

“Just use common sense and good judgment if you ever decide armadillo control is your best option,” Wiley concluded. “In a lot of cases, the property damage caused by armadillos is minimal compared to the potential drawbacks of some of the control methods. This is especially true where pesticide use is concerned. Once you make the decision, be sure to proceed with caution.”