Perhaps you’ve heard rumors that armadillos are now living in the Chattanooga area but have yet to see one for yourself. Or perhaps you’ve glimpsed a small opossum-size animal that appeared to be wearing body armor run over on the highway and thought, “What was that?” You may have even found small, unfamiliar holes dug about your lawn or flowerbed and wondered just what was making them.
Well, the rumors are true. Meet one of Tennessee’s newest immigrants, the nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus). They began making their home in Tennessee in the past 30 years, first in the southwestern part of the state. Now, as their range continues to expand, they’re becoming quite common in the Chattanooga area, especially in the South Cumberlands and Sequatchie Valley.
The name armadillo is from a Spanish word meaning “little armored one” and refers to the bony plates covering everything but its underbelly. The nine-banded armadillo has a carapace consisting of front and back plates, with nine armored bands in its midsection that allow for flexibility, hence its name (although the number of bands may vary from seven to 11).
The armadillo has small, rudimentary teeth located near the back of its mouth. Their short legs have claws that are excellent for digging burrows.
Contrary to common belief, nine-banded armadillos are unable to completely roll up into a ball. They tend to measure about 2.5 feet long from nose to tip of tail and weigh an average of 12 pounds.
Of the approximately 20 species of armadillos, the only one to occur regularly in the U. S. is the nine-banded armadillo. Its range now extends from Uruguay in South America to as far north as southern Nebraska. A range map that’s several years old shows the northern boundary of their range in Tennessee running from Reelfoot Lake on the west side to the Ocoee area in the east. Some experts predict they will spread as far north as Massachusetts. While experts have repeatedly put limitations on how far north the armadillo is expected to reach, based on its supposed intolerance of cold weather, the creature has continued to defy those limits.
Armadillos crossed the Rio Grande into Texas and were introduced in Florida, both in the late 1800s. I began seeing evidence of their presence in southern Alabama in the 1970s, but the first armadillo sightings in the Chattanooga area weren’t until 2007, which was significantly earlier than researchers had predicted.
There are several theories concerning the cause of their range expansion. One is that they simply have few natural predators in the U.S., that Americans aren’t keen on hunting or eating them and that they have a high reproductive rate. Another is that climate change is driving their expansion, though experts disagree as to whether the two are related.
The armadillo is primarily an insectivore, eating grubs, beetles, ants, termites, worms, snails and even yellow jacket larvae. They forage by rooting through loose soil and leaf litter with their snouts. They also occasionally eat bird eggs, amphibians and small reptiles. A very small part of their diet may include plant matter.
Although their eyesight is poor, they have very sensitive noses, which aids them in locating their food. During the summer, they tend to be nocturnal, becoming more active during the day in winter, when they may also need to vary their diet or move to a different location in search of food.
Perhaps because of the combination of their coat of armor and poor eyesight, armadillos pay little attention to their surroundings as they focus on foraging for food, sometimes allowing you to get quite close. When frightened, they have a tendency to leap straight up in the air 3–4 feet, which may work well with predators but not so much with automobiles.
The nine-banded armadillo can easily cross small streams. Besides being able to swim, they can hold their breath for up to six minutes while walking along the bottom. They prefer a solitary existence, a woodland habitat and a warm, rainy climate.
They may have multiple burrows but just use one for raising their young.
The female armadillo reproduces almost every year, giving birth to quadruplets, all of the same sex. The young are born without a completely hardened armor and are vulnerable to predators.
Nine-banded armadillos in the wild generally live between seven and 20 years.
Armadillos can be legally hunted year-round in Tennessee, with no bag limit. People have long hunted them for food, earning them nicknames such as “poor man’s pork,” “Hoover hog” and, my favorite, “possum on the half-shell.”
There are a few potential downsides to the arrival of this interesting mammal to our area. They can make themselves a nuisance, digging up lawns and flowerbeds in pursuit of insect prey. While they aren’t after your plants, they are attracted to the softer soil around newly set-out flowers and shrubs.
Also, armadillos are known to carry leprosy, though none have been confirmed to have it in Tennessee yet. And while there have been more cases of humans with leprosy in states where people hunt and eat armadillos, it hasn’t been proven that anyone contracted the disease from an armadillo. Nevertheless, it’s probably best to play it safe and not put your hands on an armadillo and to wash up thoroughly afterward if you do.
So now that you know armadillos are in the Chattanooga area, keep an eye out for an opportunity to see one of these unique animals.
Bob Butters explores nature and the outdoors, primarily in and near the South Cumberland region, and publishes the blog www.Nickajack-Naturalist.com. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.