Armadillos roll into Western North Carolina

Armadillo in North Carolina
WHAT THE SHELL?: Sightings of nine-banded armadillos, a species native to South and Central America, are becoming increasingly common in Western North Carolina. Photo by Jay Butfiloski, courtesy of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission

Flexible bands of skin on its back hold the hard pieces of its roly-poly shell together. Scales cover much of its body, interrupted by the shaggy, grey hair that covers its belly. Deserving a spot alongside the platypus as one of the world’s strangest mammals, the latest arrival to the Tar Heel State is doing its part to keep the Asheville area weird.

Since May 17, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has been asking residents to report any sightings of a creature that has come to the state all the way from South and Central America: the nine-banded armadillo. The call comes as part of the NC Armadillo project, a citizen-science initiative to track the unusual animals.

Armadillos began their expansion throughout the U.S. in the early 1800s. Since their arrival, they have moved north and east, establishing themselves in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. Armadillos were first seen in North Carolina in Macon County in 2007, and the first confirmed Buncombe County sighting took place in July 2014 near Leicester. Numerous confirmed sightings have since occurred throughout the state, with many more unconfirmed reports — as many as 13 in Buncombe County alone.

Colleen Olfenbuttel, the commission’s black bear and furbearer biologist, says some scientists attribute the expansion of armadillos into North Carolina in part to climate change, which might also be affecting the ranges of many other organisms in the state. Although urbanization and relocation by humans have also helped the armadillo’s invasion, she says, climate is likely a key factor.

“Certainly the more mild winters we’re having are helpful for armadillos,” Olfenbuttel explains.

Graham Reynolds, an assistant professor of biology studying evolutionary history at UNC Asheville, agrees that climate change has played some role in the armadillo’s northward push. “Undoubtedly, we expect that with warming climates in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic that they’ll continue to move,” he says.

Shell shocks

Despite the unique (for now) photo ops they’ll provide — and invasive fire ants, which also hail from South America, they’ll consume — armadillos haven’t come this far north without bringing along a few potential problems. Jodie Owen, a spokesperson for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, says there are a few things to watch out for when seeing brown, scaly shells around town.

Humans and armadillos are the only known organisms that can contract leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease. Although the chances are low of contracting leprosy from an armadillo, even in regions where they are well established, it’s not impossible. One study by the National Hansen’s Disease Program found that over 16% of armadillos in the Southeast may carry the disease. “Like with anything, we always tell people to leave wildlife alone,” says Owen.

Owen adds that armadillos are also deceptively good leapers and will jump when scared, making them prone to becoming roadkill. Their hard shells may damage vehicles in the process; a Google image search for “armadillo vehicle damage” brings up numerous pictures of bumpers destroyed by an unfortunate high-velocity meeting with the mammal.

Brasstown resident Michael Oliphant thinks such a collision was responsible for the armadillo carcass he found in his yard about a year ago. “My daughter saw it and said, ‘There’s a dead armadillo,’ and I really couldn’t believe it until I got close to it,” Oliphant recalls. After approaching the edge of his yard and the road, he says,  “It was pretty clear what it was.”

Gardeners should also beware, says Owen. Armadillos are considered pests in areas where they are more well established, such as Texas, due to their tendency to root through and dig up gardens in search of insects, as well as their habit of burrowing for shelter and safety.

There is a perpetual open hunting season on armadillos in North Carolina, although trapping is limited to the regulated trapping season (November through February). The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission recommends shooting instead of trapping as the most effective way of dealing with an armadillo problem, although there have been reports of bullets ricocheting off their shells and causing injury.

It’s getting hot in here

Although climate change could affect the distribution of many species, including armadillos, Reynolds with UNCA explains that scientists must parse out exactly which changes in a given environment are affecting a species and which are not. “When we try to understand what’s causing shifts in things like distribution or abundance or geographic range, it can be hard to determine which shifting factor is contributing the most to that, especially since we’re seeing shifting climate happening relatively recently,” he says.

Armadillos likely benefit from North Carolina’s increasingly higher average winter temperatures, Olfenbuttel says, because their shells are not well insulated and do not protect them from the cold. Similarly, she says, other animals that are affected heavily by temperature are seeing range shifts driven in part by climate change.

One such group is the various salamanders of Southern Appalachia, a region Reynolds calls “the global hotspot for salamander biodiversity.” Recent studies, Reynolds says, suggest that warming temperatures at higher elevations have had a particularly strong effect on salamanders.

“Some of the midelevation species are shifting higher, and some of the low-elevation species are shifting higher, and so they’re able to colonize higher elevations than they might have recently,” Reynolds says. Temperature and precipitation, both directly influenced by climate change, are two of the most important factors determining whether a particular species of salamander can live in a particular area.

Many insects could also see their ranges expand into North Carolina as temperatures continue to rise. “There’s anticipation of a lot of new species of invertebrates, new species of mosquitoes, new species of ticks, and those species would definitely benefit from more milder winters, especially ticks,” Olfenbuttel says.

Olfenbuttel also lists the nutria — a ratlike creature that, like the armadillo, comes from South America — as an organism that could see a western range expansion in North Carolina as a result of climate change, although she notes that no data has been collected on the subject at this time. Some native North Carolina species such as black bears, striped skunks and groundhogs, she adds, appear to be spreading without any apparent tie to climate.

Marching on

Armadillos have now been seen in 46 counties in North Carolina, mostly in the southern half of the state. Scientists are unsure how many armadillos live in the state but hope to remedy that knowledge gap through efforts such as NC Armadillo.

“Even in those counties where we’ve had observations, we want to keep hearing about observations, because that helps us then determine, ‘OK, not only have armadillos been seen, they keep being seen,’” Olfenbuttel says.

In March, the first armadillo was spotted in Virginia’s Buchanan County, and two months later, a different armadillo was found dead less than 20 miles away. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries thinks the armadillos must have headed east into the state from Kentucky, where there is an established population.

Olfenbuttel is hardly surprised by those findings. “I fully anticipate they’ll make it to Pennsylvania in the next 20-40 years,” she says.

Those wishing to report armadillo sightings can either directly email the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission or post about their encounter on the iNaturalist site launched for NC Armadillo. Instructions for both methods can be found at avl.mx/pru4.

Updated at 6:20 p.m. on Oct. 22 to clarify the period of legal armadillo trapping.

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