Armadillos on the road

Wild Ways

When we drive through Fort Clinch State Park, we often see a car hastily parked alongside the road and the passengers out on the shoulder looking at “something.” And more often than not, that something is a nine-banded armadillo.

Living here in Florida, we sometimes take these strange-looking mammals for granted. It is very common to see a squashed armadillo on the roads around the island. These critters roam at night, have poor vision and are not all that brilliant. When they are single-mindedly crossing a road to get to the juicy worms and insects on the other side, they may not notice a car heading their way. And if they do notice it too late, their main defense is to either jump up or to roll into a hard-shelled ball. Neither strategy is a very good way to avoid a car bearing down on them. Thus, the common sight of armadillo road kills.

These animals plague many of us here. Armadillos love our fertilized lawns and worm-filled flowerbeds and can dig these up in search of prey. And they find that the foundations of our houses and toolsheds are the perfect place to create their burrows, often causing structural damage in the process.

I sometimes get questions from readers about how to get rid of armadillos in their yards and there is no easy answer. It may work to deter them from their burrows with rags soaked in ammonia, bright lights or loud noises, but maybe not. They are nothing if not persistent.

They are also difficult to trap in regular Havahart mesh traps. If you want to spend $100 or more, you can buy a special armadillo trap, with no guarantees either. Various pest control companies in our area can also trap armadillos for you, but not without a significant price tag too.

But all this information is unknown to those visitors from the north who spy their first armadillo in Florida, and Fort Clinch, as the northernmost state park, is likely to be the spot where this happens for many. And you have to admit, in an odd sort of way these hard-shelled, curious-looking animals are almost cute. If you live in New Jersey and never saw an armadillo before, it’s understandable that you might want to get out of your car and watch one ramble on by.

Armadillos have not been in Florida forever. These creatures were once found only in the Southwest, but over the years they have extended their range to Florida, where they now have become naturalized. I remember taking a graduate course in “Ecosystems of Florida” at the University of Florida taught by the famed naturalist Dr. Archie Carr, when he would go on occasional rants about the horrors of armadillos that had begun to colonize his Gainesville yard. From his viewpoint, armadillos were a destructive, invading species, wreaking havoc by disturbing the soil, invading gopher tortoise burrows and all manner of other transgressions.

But armadillos are here to stay and we might as well get used to them.

Nine-banded armadillos also have many unique features not shared by other mammals. For one thing, they always have four babies at a time, all males or all females, each genetically identical from a single egg that split into four. And they have some amazing ways to cross water bodies. If a stream is narrow, they can sink to the bottom, hold their breath, and walk across. But if it is wider, they reportedly can swell up their stomach to twice its size and swim-float across.

It’s okay to admire armadillos but you are better off not touching them or letting them spit on you. Some nine-banded armadillos may carry leprosy that is transmissible to humans, albeit rarely. Most people have a natural resistance to leprosy, but don’t tempt fate by handling armadillos. If you must handle one, be sure you wash your hands thoroughly afterward, and that should be protection enough. Leprosy is no longer the much-feared fatal disease in most parts of the world and it can be cured completely with a combination of three different antibiotics, but why take a chance?

So the best advice is to learn to live with armadillos, don’t handle them and accept that these animals share our world now, and there’s not a whole lot we can do but enjoy them.

Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations.

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