Armadillos: Slowly marching northward

By Pamela Holz, Washington County Conservation Board Naturalist


When someone goes home for the day, you expect them to stay home. You definitely don?t expect them to return in a couple of hours later bearing a dead armadillo.

Armadillos do not live in Iowa. Frankly, neither was this one? anymore. This particular armadillo had an unfortunate encounter on the highway. My boss, upon hearing of it, left home because he had to see it for himself. Then, of course, he had to bring it in to show the rest of us.

Nine-banded armadillos, the only species in the U.S., have this quirky habit of popping several feet up in the air when startled. This may work to surprise predators, but it fails incredibly on the roadway. The animal is just small enough for a car to drive over it without harm. Which, in a case of extremely bad timing, is enough to scare the animal into a jump, thereby hitting the undercarriage of the car.

However, the nature of the impact, tied with the animal?s armoring, usually results in road kill armadillos looking rather intact. I actually had some friends, on a trip to the South, try to take pictures of living armadillos. When they failed to encounter any, the wife tried to convince her husband to simply ?stand up? a road kill to give the appearance of life for a photo.

After seeing this specimen up close, I think photos are the best way to view this creature. I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but my first response was, boy, it is ugly. Like on the level of our opossums.

Armadillos are utterly unmistakable. Their skin appears very tough, like a turtle?s. Instead of a nice fur coat, a few scraggly, coarse hairs poke out here and there. The plates on their back remind one of a giant roly-poly. If they were horse-sized, they probably would have been used in ancient warfare ? they?re built for it.

Most likely, they are moving into Iowa.

This is not the first armadillo I have heard about in Iowa. I know of a handful of records over the last decade. I would not be surprised to hear that rate increase.

Despite run-ins with vehicles, hunted for its meat, and eaten by a few predators, the nine-banded armadillo population is growing. In the 19th century, you wouldn?t have encountered one north of Mexico. However, the armadillo isn?t too picky about where it lives or what it eats. Texas provided abundant supplies of both, so it moved north.

By the 1980s, they had reached Missouri and were listed as a possible resident.

Two decades later, they had firmly entrenched themselves in our southern neighbor.

Scientists believe they will continue their northern and eastern immigration until they reach areas with too cold winters.

The armadillo does not have the ability to hibernate so weather is a primary limitation to their potential range.

Theoretically, our recent armored friend could actually be leading the way for an armadillo invasion in Iowa.

Perhaps our grandchildren will be cursing the armadillo population as they bring their new car in for repairs after a too close encounter with the critter