SIU professor looking at armadillos’ movement north

Carbondale, Ill. —  The armadillo is marching northward. The only question has been: how far north has it come and how far north will it go?

And what is the animal bringing with it?

F. Agustin Jimenez, an associate professor of zoology at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, is launching a new study on the migrating mammal. The primary study focuses on the parasites armadillos are carrying into the region.

There are 23 species of armadillo in the southern hemisphere, but only the nine-banded armadillo is moving northward.

“Essentially the prevailing idea is the warmer and shorter winters might facilitate their survival in the northern hemisphere,” Jimenez said. “They have expanded quite rapidly. At the end of the 19th century they were making it into Texas. By the middle of the 20th century they were into Florida, Georgia, all of the Gulf Coast States were populated by armadillos.”

Jimenez hopes other studies will be launched later this year, tracking the movements of the armadillo. Generally, the critters seem to be moving northeast. In Illinois, the northernmost sightings have been in the Mount Vernon area. Nationally, armadillos have appeared as far north as South Dakota.

“We are looking at the first wave that is going that direction,” he said. “We want to see if that is a trend, or to see if they are just going to go northward.”

Initially, scientists believed the armadillos were moving northward, and would die when the winter turned colder. But, now, armadillos are being spotted in early spring.

“What I want to know is how do they spend the winter,” Jimenez said. “We used to think they were moving northward, and in winter they would die. This is not true. As more observations emerge, this time of the year is when people start seeing them. They must spend their time here. They must go underground. I don’t know how deep they go. Either they find a mother lode of beetles or they hibernate.”

Armadillos are completely insectivorous. As such, their presence doesn’t appear to be a threat to any native species.

“The forest is relatively rich for sustaining underground life,” Jimenez said. “That is what they are going for. They seldom spend time in one area. They keep moving.”

Their burrowing protects them from predators such as coyotes, but also makes them a pest, tearing up flower gardens and lawns.

And, not only are armadillos moving northward, their population is expanding rapidly.

For the most part, armadillos have one litter per year, sometimes two. They will have four young in each litter. All of the young in the litter are the same sex because just one egg will be fertilized and then it will split into two or four embryos.

With no natural predators in this area, populations increase rapidly.

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