We have more armadillo news.
Armadillos are continuing their steady waddle northward into Southwest Virginia.
We reported last fall how armadillos have been sporadically showing up in the state, generally believed to be “rogue males” who tend to wander further than the females. (This sounds like the makings of a classic country song.)
Technically, the first recorded sighting of an armadillo in Virginia was in 1932 in Christiansburg, believed to have been a stowaway on a freight train coming up from farther south – the armadillo as a marsupial hobo. The response then, according to an account in The Roanoke Times? The man who saw the strange creature by the roadside “obtained a stick and killed it,” then took the carcass into Radford and showed it off.
Another armadillo showed up near Farmville in 1986, also presumably a hitchhiker but more definitely as roadkill.
More recently, though, we’ve had a more regular stream of sightings, starting in 2010 or so when two more armadillos got flattened in Smyth and Tazewell counties. The reports have picked up in the past three years, with sightings in Buchanan and Russell counties in 2019, in Washington and Wythe counties in 2020, and in Wise County and Roanoke in 2021. (“Sighting” is a diplomatic word. Many of these critters were “sighted” in the sense that they were smooshed. Armadillos have a bad habit of thinking they can scare off predators by jumping up in front of them. That worked just fine with your basic prehistoric beast. It works less well today with steel-belted radials. The poor fellas go out on the asphalt to warm their bellies and next thing you know they’re trying to scare off an 18-wheeler. The country singer Robert Earl Keen wrote a whole song about this called “The Armadillo Jackal.”)
The year 2022 began with an armadillo sighting in Montgomery County on New Year’s Day, and now we have two more sightings to report: one in Pulaski County in February and another in Wise County in June.
All this information comes courtesy of Nancy Moncrief from the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville and Seth Thompson and Michael Fries of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, who have been keeping track of this slow-moving armadillo invasion. Armadillos have been on the move – slowly, of course – for a long time. Armadillos originated in South America and made their way into Texas in the 1840s. By 1927, they were established enough there that Texas declared the armadillo to be the official state mammal. By 1954, they’d crossed the Mississippi River – they can swim but prefer the comfort of the undercarriage of a train or tractor-trailer. By 1974, they were pushing deeper into Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama, 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 they’re well-established in much of Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina, so it’s only natural that some would decide to check out Virginia. The only surprise – although it’s not much of one – is that they’re coming into Southwest and so far not Southside.
Kristin Barham, who sells real estate in Pulaski County, spotted an armadillo near Draper on Feb. 9: “The fellow did waddle away as I did not attempt to approach him as bad as I wanted to. I just admired from a distance and took pictures. I am aware of the diseases that armadillos can carry.” She watched him for about 15 minutes snuffling for food in a field before he disappeared into a culvert that goes under Virginia 100. Was this the same armadillo that was spotted in Montgomery County five weeks earlier or a different one? It was 2.3 miles from an I-81 exit. Was it a hitchhiker who had just jumped off a northbound tractor trailer? The armadillo was unavailable for comment so we don’t know.
Then one turned up dead – roadkill – on a back road in Wise County near St. Paul. Last fall, a hunter near St. Paul captured an image of an armadillo on his trail cam. This dead one was about 2.5 miles from where the live one was sighted. We have no idea if this was the same armadillo or not.
There’s no evidence yet of a breeding population, Fries says. All the specimens retrieved via roadkill have been males, although scientists assume the females will eventually follow and when they do, we’ll get some baby armadillos – the first native Virginia ‘dillos. When that happens, we’ll have four of them. Armadillos always produce quadruplets (perhaps a reason those armadillo females don’t range as far as the males), so once we do have a breeding population, it could replicate pretty fast. Two armadillos suddenly become six and if those four babies are female, then, well, the math is pretty geometric.
There’s much speculation in the scientific community about just how far north armadillos can go. We think of armadillos as a desert species but that’s not so; we just think that because we Americans first became familiar with them in Texas. Armadillos actually like moisture; they grub around in the dirt for bugs and such. “The entire state of Virginia is theoretically in the physiological boundary of temperature” suitable for armadillos, says Moncrief, curator of mammals at the natural history museum. Some have suggested that with a warming climate, armadillos could eventually make their way as far north as Pennsylvania, or beyond. First, though, they have to make a home in Virginia and they haven’t done that – yet. But some do appear to be checking out the property.
If you see an armadillo, don’t touch it. Take a picture and notify the Department of Wildlife Resources. We’d love to see your armadillo picture, too. You can send it to email@example.com.