For years, reports of armadillo sightings, mostly of their roadside carcasses, have been cropping up across the region. An unconfirmed report in Macon County, several sightings in Jackson County, another one in southern Haywood County last December and other testimonies have led biologists to conclude that the armadillo is attempting to make its home here in the mountains as it continues its slow northward march.
The N.C. Wildlife Commission is averaging four to six calls per year to report armadillo sightings, and all the ones for past few years have been coming from WNC.
“I would call it the hotspot,” said Colleen Olfenbuttel, a biologist and the de facto armadillo tracker with the wildlife agency. “We don’t know enough to know how many they are, or what western counties. But, yes, there are armadillos in Western North Carolina.”
The milder winters as of late, Olfenbuttel said, have given the historically warm-weather species a toehold in the mountains, filtering in from surrounding states of Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina. The abundance of fresh water, forests and bugs and critters to eat has also made the place an attractive spot for the shelled creatures to bed down.
However, until recently, there has not been a reliable sighting in the state of a young armadillo, a family of armadillos, nor a live one for that matter, questioning the notion of whether there is in fact a breeding population in the region. The only live armadillo sightings in the state were tenuous at best.
The state’s first eyewitness report of an armadillo in 2000 is a classic example. Someone saw an armadillo jump off a truck hauling palm trees with a Florida plate. It had stopped at a rest area along Interstate 95 when the armadillo made a break for it.
“We don’t know how true the story is — we just took the report,” Olfenbuttel said. “But it’s not beyond the realm of imagination that it happened.”
Most sightings are logged as “unconfirmed,” but Jackson County resident Judy Newton knows exactly what she saw in the yard of her home in Cashiers. What first appeared to be a turtle from her kitchen window was in fact a group of armadillos.
Newton said she lived in Florida as a child and saw them down there a good bit. Enough to know what they were, and that’s what they were, she said. They were each about the size of a football and were digging through the mole holes in her lawn, most likely for bugs to eat.
“I kept thinking ‘You can’t be here, what are you dong in my yard?’” Newton said.
Newton was concerned about the damage the armadillos would cause to her property and what other animals, like skunks, their burrows might invite. And having heard that armadillos can be carriers of the rare flesh eating disease leprosy, she had neighbors come and remove two of them. But two escaped and remain at large, Newton said.
While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies the risk of getting leprosy from an armadillo as low, Newton said she is now happier with her property armadillo-free.
“They had made themselves right at home,” Newton said. “I hope that they’re gone.”
She was surprised that no one else saw the pack of armadillos, or others like them in the area. When she called the county’s Cooperative Extension Office, she was asked if they weren’t in fact opossums she had seen.
Robert Hawk, extension agent for Jackson County, said he was doubtful at first of Newton’s report because it was the first he had heard of the creature in Jackson County. But nonetheless, after a bit of research her story became more plausible to him. Newton’s residence is only miles from where armadillos are established in northern Georgia.
While full of useful advice on a whole host mountain critters, from bears to beavers, Hawk found himself short on advice to give to a WNC resident with an armadillo problem. He ended up borrowing species-specific information from the extension service in Alabama and sending it to Newton by mail.
“It’s the first I’ve heard of it,” Hawk said, but didn’t expect it to be the last. “They like protection and cover, water, and loose soil to rummage for food. WNC has all of that.”
Wildlife experts estimate that it will take another 10 to 20 years before the species is seen regularly in the area, though it is suspected that a breeding population already exists.
They could one day become prolific on the North Carolina landscape. The state already has them lumped in with the unprotected “exotic species” status given to coyotes for the purposes of unlimited hunting and trapping, although armadillos are notorious for avoiding man-made traps.
They are also well-equipped for the mountains as versatile scavengers with few real predators. Once balled up, their protective shell make them difficult for any coyote, fox or bobcat to get at. They can also swim by ballooning their bellies with air and are quick to evade capture.
The only real deterrent to armadillos becoming established in WNC will most likely be the weather. The animals can’t endure prolonged cold and frozen soil makes scavenging for grubs nearly impossible.
“A cold winter here may knock them back a bit,” Hawk said. “But that’s one of few things.”
So while Newton may be able to get rid of the first round of armadillos in her backyard, the ones already in WNC may be multiplying and many more are poring across the border headed north.
Besides the oddity of picturing the Appalachians overrun with armored prehistoric-looking creatures, the armadillos may bring new possibilities for local crafters, musicians or cooks. Their shells have used to make hats, lutes and other string instruments and their meat is said to have the texture and taste of fine grain pork.
Undoubtedly, they will be another WNC roadside staple like opossums. They already have the nickname “opossum on the half shell.” (Along with the Texas turkey, armored pig and, as the ancient Aztecs called them, rabbit-turtles.)
Like opossums, and the species’ unfortunate tendency to stare at approaching headlights, armadillos are equally ill-equipped to thwart the threat of oncoming traffic.
Of their three reactions to danger — rolling into a ball, springing into the air and digging into the ground — each one tends to get them killed on the blacktop with cars rushing by.
“The poor armadillos,” said Olfenbuttel. “They didn’t adapt to our cars in their evolution to avoid danger.”
That’s one reason why armadillo road kill is still more common in North Carolina than live sightings. Apart from Swain, Jackson, Macon and Haywood counties, there have also been road kill armadillos confirmed in Henderson, Cherokee, Catawba and Cleveland counties.
But that all could be changing soon.
“Scattered reports have slowly started to increase over the past two to three years,” Olfenbuttel said. “We know once they establish themselves they probably will expand rapidly.”
Have you seen an armadillo? Call the N.C. Wildlife Commission to report it.