The world is changing in many ways but here’s one way you may not know about: Southwest Virginia now has armadillos.
How cool is that? (Correct answer: Very. Although maybe “cool” isn’t the word we want here. Climate change might be playing a part in this.)
Other parts of Virginia west of the Blue Ridge now have fishers (a type of weasel) and porcupines. Throughout history, people have migrated around the world. So, too, do animals, and these are three of the critters now migrating into Virginia.
Of these, armadillos are clearly the most unusual, because we think of them as a denizen of the Texas desert. The singer Robert Earl Keen has a song called “The Armadillo Jackal” in which his protagonist is hunting armadillos out on the farm-to-market road:
Waddlin’ down 1291 to keep their bodies warm
I’m talking walkin’ belts and neckties and boots for rodeo
They don’t run too fast, don’t waste much gas, I’m makin’ lots o’dough
Other Texas lore remembers the doughty little armadillo as “possum on the halfshell” or “Hoover hogs” – respectable eatin’ during the Great Depression.
The noble armadillo may waddle, and it may waddle slowly, but waddle it does. Before 1849, there was apparently not a single armadillo north of the Rio Grande. They were solely a creature of what today we’d call Latin America – from South America north to Mexico. (The name “armadillo” is Spanish for “little armored one.”) But then they crossed the Rio Grande – they’re said to be surprisingly good swimmers – and established themselves in Texas to such an extent that in 1927 it was declared the official state small mammal. Armadillos have been on the move ever since, sometimes by hoofin’ it on foot, sometimes by hitchhiking on trains and trucks. By 1954, they’d made it across the Big Muddy and were common in southern Mississippi and southern Alabama – with a separate colony in Florida often attributed to a population released by a small zoo in 1924 and others who escaped from a travelling circus in 1936. By 1974, they were pushing deeper into Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama and the Floridians were moving north into Georgia. By 1994, they were well into Kansas and Missouri in the Midwest and into parts of South Carolina. By 2014 they were into Illinois and Kentucky and all of Tennessee west of Nashville.
Now, by golly, they’re in Virginia, perhaps in the same way that Vikings were once in North America – at first, a little off-course, then later on-course. The Farmville Herald published a photo of a dead ‘dillo in 1986 – roadkill, and a cautionary tale why you shouldn’t go hitchhiking. That was a one-off until around 2010 or so, when two more armadillos got flattened in Tazewell and Smyth countie
Then in March 2019, a woman in Oakwood in Buchanan County wondered what was tearing up her yard – and then saw the culprit waddling away, completely unremorseful. (Armadillos, a burrowing species, are like that). She took a picture – documentary proof is good – but efforts to trap the little bugger failed. He (and he was probably a he) was never seen again. Two months later, on May 20, 2019, a dog near Swords Creek in Russell County spotted a ‘dillo and did what dogs are prone to do: The dog killed it. Bad for the armadillo but good for science: The Virginia Museum of Natural History finally recovered a specimen – that’s polite scientific lingo for a dead body – and declared it the first documented armadillo in the state. That fall, in October 2019, another armadillo turned up dead in a trap in Honaker in Russell County. Since then, two other armadillos have been photographed – but not corralled – in Southwest Virginia, a live one in Glade Spring in Washington County in March 2020 and and a dead one near Fort Chiswell in Wythe County in May 2020. Since then, nothing, although, as the saying goes, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
There may not be a breeding population of armadillos here yet – as with many species, the males tend to wander more than the females – but that will happen. Scientists who study such things have no doubt about that. Armadillos are now well-documented in eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina and eastern Kentucky, so it’s only a matter of time before they establish themselves here in Virginia.
“The entire state of Virginia is theoretically in the physiological boundary of temperature” suitable for armadillos, says Nancy Moncrief, curator of mammals for the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville and co-author of a paper on armadillos in Virginia. We think of armadillos as a desert creature but that’s not really so. “Some have suggested soil moisture is a more critical factor for distribution because they kind of snuffle in the ground. There has to be enough moisture for invertebrates to survive.”
The only thing holding back armadillos from colonizing all of Virginia right now is their utter lack of speed and the occasional steel-belted radial. When armadillos are confronted with a predator – say, an oncoming car – they have an unfortunate habit of trying to scare it off by jumping in the air. Their vertical leap is impressive (three to four feet!), but usually fatal. Some studies have suggested that from the standpoint of warming temperatures, armadillos could easily live well into Pennsylvania and the coastal parts of New England. A changing climate might push the boundaries even further north. “Does this mean we will see armadillos in New York’s Central Park?,” speculates the website Armadillo Online (there’s apparently a website for everything). “Armadillos digging up the potato fields in Idaho? Armadillos sipping coffee in Seattle? Armadillos riding the streetcars in San Francisco? Enjoying the seashore in Massachusetts? Perhaps some Canadian armadillos in Vancouver, eh? Only time will tell!”
The website points out that another South American mammal – the humble possum – started in South America and now lives here quite comfortably (except for those aforementioned steel-belted radials).
“Now that that they’re over here,” Moncrief says of armadillos, “they’re kind of set up to be a really good invasive species.” They forage for creepy-crawly things and don’t have any natural predators except for motor vehicles. “Roadways and human activity don’t seem to bother them,” Moncrief says. “If they can avoid being hit by a car, travelling up a road is not a problem for them.”
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But wait, there’s more! Armadillos aren’t the only new species moving into Virginia. So, too, are fishers and porcupines. Fishers aren’t particularly well-known – they’re a small, carnivorous critter that looks rather cuddly but that isn’t recommended. It’s sometimes called a fisher cat, but isn’t feline. Technically, fishers aren’t a new species to Virginia – they just haven’t been here for a long time. Appalachia was part of their historic range and fishers lived here until maybe the 1890s (there were some sightings then in Highland County). As with other creatures, fishers were the classic victim of overhunting. In the 1960s, fishers were re-introduced into West Virginia and have been gradually making their way back to Virginia. They first showed up in Highland, Rappahannock and Rockingham counties in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Now they often turn up on trailcams, Moncrief says. A 2015 paper she co-authored says most fisher sightings have been in the Shenandoah Valley, from Rockingham north to Frederick counties, but one was as far south as Botetourt.
Porcupines are doing the same thing. They were once native in Virginia but disappeared in the mid-1800s. For a long time the southern-most populations were in Pennsylvania. But now porcupines are checking out Virginia again. One was killed in Bath County in 1978 – no information on whether it was on holiday at The Homestead. That seemed a random sighting but now there are more. Over the past decade, porcupines have been sighted throughout the Shenandoah Valley, from Frederick County down to Augusta County, with others in Loudoun and Bath counties. In 2019, there were sightings in Giles and Montgomery County (possibly the same critter, although in Montgomery it was alive and in Giles it was dead).
Armadillos produce four identical quadruplets in each litter, so once here, can expand fairly quickly. Porcupines, though, average just one offspring a year so the paper co-authored by Moncrief and Mike Fries of the Virginia Department of Natural Resource says “it is somewhat surprising” that porcupines have expanded their range so rapidly. So now, the big question – with armadillos coming up from the south, fishers coming in from the west, and porcupines coming down from the north, when and where will they all meet in a Golden Spike kind of moment?
Also, a friendly reminder: If you see any of these beasties, don’t mess with them. Those quills are kind of sharp.
If you see an armadillo, a fisher or a porcupine, let the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources know. We’d love to know, too, at firstname.lastname@example.org
Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. Reach him at email@example.com.