All About Armadillos

These rascals tear up the yard, but what's the impact on game?

Have a pesky armadillo digging up the sod in your yard?

Just be glad you don’t have a South American giant armadillo, which can weigh up to 130 pounds and tear up a heck of a lot more landscaping than the little 10-lb. nine-banded armadillos we have in the U.S.

GON recently got a letter from a reader asking point-blank, “What’re armor dillers good for, anyway?”

Well, our reader’s misnomer is more appropriate than you might think. Armadillo roughly translated from Spanish means “little armored one,” and unless you developed a taste for them in Depression-era Texas—where they were known as Hoover hogs and eaten regularly—they really aren’t good for much of anything.

They are used in laboratory research of leprosy because they carry the disease, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing, is it? Not only can armadillos carry leprosy, it is speculated they can pass it to humans, although that’s a claim that’s been tough to pin down. Leprosy itself is rare, with just 150 cases occurring per year in the United States, according to a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine in April 2011.

Scientists go back and forth about the dangers of armadillos and leprosy, but the previously mentioned report, titled “Probable Zoonotic Leprosy in the Southern United States,” strongly implicates contact with armadillos as a source of infection and discourages frequent handling of armadillos or consumption of armadillo meat.

Basically, what the study found was that of the few leprosy cases identified in the South, mainly Texas and Louisiana, most of the patients had differing levels of contaact with armadillos prior to being diagnosed. Also, the strain of leprosy found in those cases was distinct from strains of the disease found anywhere else in the country. Finally, most of the armadillos testing positive for leprosy had the distinct strain of the disease found in most of the Southern leprosy cases.

The study might not prove armadillos spread leprosy, but it did strongly implicate the little critter.

Dr. Mike Mengak, with UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry, doesn’t seem too worried about armadillos spreading leprosy. He mentioned flippantly that leprosy can now be cured with antibiotics, anyway.

“As far as I know, I don’t think that if you just have an armadillo walking around in your yard or if you pick one up you’re going to get leprosy,” he said. “And people who eat armadillos, it’s like anything else you eat wild, you just need to cook it well. I don’t think there’s a very serious threat.”

Mike called armadillos a benign invasive. He said although they are not a native species, they don’t have much of an impact positive or negative on native ecosystems.

“The biggest problem with armadillos is with people’s manicured yards. If you put a lot of effort into your yard and then you wake up one morning and an armadillo has dug a dozen holes in it, you’re going to be pretty upset,” he said. “It’s cosmetic damage. They’re really not having any destructive force in the environment in general.”

Armadillos may not be having a general positive or negative impact on native ecosystems, but specifically, they may have already done a number on quail, which have had a pretty tough time in recent decades.

In a UGA study conducted in north Florida and south Georgia from 1999-2001 using 24-hour infrared camera surveillance of quail nests, armadillos were found to be the No. 3 predator of quail eggs behind snakes and raccoons. Fire ants were the No. 4 predator of nests and behind them were possums, bobcats, cotton rats and coyotes. Snakes got about 44 percent of the nests that were raided, raccoons raided 22 percent and armadillos 20 percent.

“But everything eats quail,” said Mike. “Quail are like chicken nuggets of the world. Everything out there eats quail. Ants eat quail. We have photographs of deer eating quail.”

Since armadillos get into quail eggs, it would stand to reason they also raid the nests of other ground-nesting birds, like wild turkeys. But Mike doesn’t believe this is the case. He said it’s because their mouths are very small.

“I don’t think they have much impact on turkeys, seeing as the nests are bigger and the eggs are bigger,” he said. “They can’t manipulate them and get their mouths on them. I’m not saying an armadillo has never eaten turkey eggs, but you just don’t hear about it.”

An armadillo’s diet is made up mainly of bugs. If you’ve spent any time in a deer stand, you’ve probably seen them rooting around in the leaf litter. They’re not looking for acorns, they’re sniffing with their perceptive noses for bugs. Mike said more than 90 percent of their diet is made up of bugs.

“They’re vacuum cleaners. They’re wandering around sucking up ants and beetles and termites and worms and spiders and pretty much any type of bug they can get to,” he said.

That’s what they’re doing on your lawn and in your flower beds. They’re digging for worms and grubs. They also dig burrows 8 to 10 inches across and 3 to 4 feet long, on average. Each animal may have five to 10 burrows. That can do a lot of damage to your landscaping.

This used to be an issue just for folks in south Georgia, but the spread of armadillos has proven to be pretty much unstoppable. The general consensus in the scientific community is they spread north from Florida, where they were introduced in the 1920s or ’30s. Mike said he thinks there may have also been some spreading east from Louisiana across the Mississippi River. By now we’ve learned there is not much, short of climate and soil type, that can or will stop their spread.

Some reports have them as far north as Kansas, Missouri, Colorado and Nebraska. Mike said for certain they have made it up to a line that stretches from Athens to Rome in Georgia, and he said a reliable source told him of individual animals found up around Chattanooga.

Rivers don’t stop them. They can hold their breath for a long time and swim either by inflating their lungs and floating on the surface or by walking along on the bottom underwater. Roads don’t stop them. Well… a road will stop a lot of them, as you may have noticed.

So what will stop the spread? Mike said he doesn’t know of a specific temperature threshold for the animals, but they do not like cold weather. He also said habitat type may slow them down. Armadillos like coastal lowlands and river valleys. Mike said he doesn’t expect armadillos to do very well in the rocky soils of the Appalachians.

No matter how far they end up spreading, armadillos are here to stay. If you’ve got them, you will likely always have them. They are pretty prolific breeders, reaching sexual maturity between 1 and 2 years of age and giving birth to four to six young each year. The oldest captive armadillo on record was 25 years old.

And because of their armor, humans are their only real predator. Trapping them can work, but it’s tough. They don’t respond to any sort of bait, said Mike. You have to rely on them bumbling into your trap. Which surprisingly does happen using a “winged trap,” especially when the trap is placed near a burrow or in an area you know they frequent.

“My graduate students actually had more luck sneaking up on them and catching them with dip-nets,” said Mike, referring to a study in which armadillos were captured, radio-collared and released to determine their favorite habitat types and travel habits. Their average home-range, by the way, is a little more than 20 acres.

If you’re not trying to catch them alive, there’s no reason to use a net. Use a gun. Hunting them is allowed year-round, and there’s no limit. It’s fun too, a great summertime activity. Take the kids. Armadillos are relatively easy to stalk because of all the noise they make in the leaf litter. They have poor eyesight, but they will see movement. So don’t move unless they’ve got their heads down.

Whether or not you want to take one home for the table is up to you. The New England Journal of Medicine advises against it. But if you decide you have to try possum on a half shell, clean up well after dressing one, and cook the meat thoroughly. People have been doing it for years.

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