Armadillos moving north

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Agricultural agent Rick Skillington calls them "possum on the half-shell."

When asked to comment about armadillos appearing this far north, he becomes more serious: "Supposedly they follow the fire ants north, about three or four years behind them," he explained.

Armadillos can do some harm if they burrow where they're not wanted, such as under a grain bin or a house, but generally they cause no trouble. Some types of armadillo eat exclusively ants, but the nine-banded ones we have in the United States are more omnivorous, eating many kinds of insects, also crayfish, amphibians, eggs of snakes and birds, and carrion.

If they really did eat fire ants in quantity, Skillington agreed everyone in Marshall County would want armadillos on their farm.

The armadillo's name is Spanish for "little man in armor." It looks clumsy, but an armadillo can run surprisingly quickly or burrow underground with amazing speed. If it can't get away, an armadillo will roll into a ball, using its bony plates as protection.

Armadillo babies are born once a year in litters of four identical quadruplets. They can follow their mother within a few hours of birth, though their skin is soft to begin with and hardens as they grow older. The armadillo does not hibernate and cannot survive prolonged below-freezing weather, but some authorities expect it to spread as far north as the Ohio River.

Skillington said he is more concerned about another invading mammal, the nutria, which is also making its way north. He knows they are here because the dog that guards his sheep on Verona-Caney Road killed one and left it for him to find.

The nutria is a large, noctural, aquatic rodent that can undermine stream banks, breach the dams of ponds and generally cause trouble around water, as well as eating grain crops.

They were introduced into Louisiana in the '30s as a fur-bearer kept in captivity, but nutria soon escaped and multiplied enormously in the wild. They are still trapped for fur in Louisiana.