An armadillo waddled into the view of Allen Meade's trail cam in Wise County in September. Courtesy of Allen Meade.

Buckle up, people, and hold onto your cowboy hats: We have another armadillo sighting in Southwest Virginia.

We reported earlier about how the desert critters have been waddling into Virginia, with a flurry of sightings in 2019 and 2020 in Buchanan, Russell, Washington and Wythe counties. These came on top of scattered sightings from 1986 to 2013 in Smyth and Tazewell counties, with one as far as east as Prince Edward County in Southside. Those first sightings were presumed to be hitchhikers on trucks, although the 2019-2020 incidents might not have been.

Over the years, armadillos have steadily been expanding their range and are now well-established in many of our neighboring states to the south and west – particularly Tennessee and Kentucky. It should be no surprise that a few might wander across the state line.

Armadillo sightings in Virginia. Map by Robert Lunsford.

Most of those earlier sightings involved armadillos that were, um, dead. As Seth Thompson, a wildlife biologist for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources explains, armadillos have the unfortunate habit of thinking they can frighten off a car or truck. Armadillos have been nicknamed “possums on the half shell,” but they don’t act much like possums at all. Possums, as we all know, like to play dead. Smoosh. Armadillos do just the opposite. They jump. “When they get frightened, they have kind of a spring,” he says. “They jump straight up.”

Bad for your grille work. Worse for the armadillo.

There was a live armadillo that was spotted digging up a woman’s backyard near Oakwood in Buchanan County. Thompson tried to trap the creature, but no such luck. A few months later a dog caught sight of an armadillo the next county over, near Swords Creek in Russell County – and promptly shook it to death. Was it the same armadillo that had dug up the yard in Oakwood? No clue.

After those five sightings in 2019-2020, no more armadillos were seen.

Until now.

This fall, Allen Meade of St. Paul in Wise County checked his trail cam and couldn’t believe what he saw. Was that an armadillo waddling into the frame? Yes, yes it was. He alerted his neighbor and his neighbor alerted Thompson. This black-and-white trail cam photo now becomes the latest documentary evidence that armadillos are here. 

Thompson figures this one is still around, too. “Armadillos are notorious for getting killed on the road,” Thompson says. However, the Department of Wildlife Resources works closely with the Virginia Department of Transportation – deer carcasses, you know, especially those being tested for chronic wasting disease – so if one turned up as roadkill, VDOT would know. And, in these times, if somebody found a flattened armadillo somewhere, they’d probably post a photo on Facebook and word would get around – much faster than our slow-moving friends from the Palaeocene Epoch.

The assumption is that these are, as Thompson describes them, “wayward males,” which sounds like a good topic for a country song. Nancy Moncrief, curator of mammals for the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville, says the males tend to ramble further than the females. However, based on temperature and the habitat, it’s scientifically possible for armadillos to live as far north as Pennsylvania. They just haven’t gotten there yet. We think of them as Texas mammals, but they only made it to Texas in the 1840s. They’re actually South American mammals, and they adapt pretty well anywhere that there are enough bugs to dig out of the ground. Since moisture is a factor for those bugs (and the plants and such that they nibble), they actually do better outside the desert.

Virginia is for lovers? Virginia might well be for armadillos, too. They just need to get here a little faster. Speaking of lovers … What hasn’t been documented yet is a breeding population in Virginia. Once some “wayward females” catch up with those “wayward males,” scientists expect nature to take its course. Armadillos have been moving pretty fast through the South – fast being a relative term for armadillos – so someday there probably will be a breeding population here. By 1972, they’d made their way to Georgia. By 1995, they were into Tennessee. One scientific paper measures their northward movement at a rate of nearly 7 miles a year. Not fast enough to qualify at the Bristol Speedway, but we all know about the story of the tortoise and the hare. Or, perhaps someday, the story of the armadillo.  

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.