By Don Corrigan (Webster-Kirkwood Times)
Possums on the half-shell, otherwise known as nine-banded armadillos, are no longer just showing up as roadkill on Missouri roadways. The critters are finding their way onto golf courses, lawns and backyard gardens.
Missouri Department of Conservation officials recently sent out an advisory that these visitors from Texas are now here to stay. And residents need to be aware of their “strange skills” and the problems they pose for highway drivers, gardeners and residents seeking to trap and dispose of the unusual, bacteria-laden animals.
“I’ve been seeing more and more of them dead along the highways on my Missouri travels,” said Kirkwood’s Bill Ruppert, president of Ruppert Gardens & Chicken Ranch.
“I recently saw one that was hit in the middle of the road and I stopped to get a look before the turkey vultures – what I call nature’s undertakers – had a chance to take care of him. Armadillos really are some odd-looking little animals.”
The armadillo, a Spanish word for “little armored one,” has plates of hardened skin which nearly cover the entire body, including the head, legs, and tail. The nine-banded armadillo gets its name from the moveable “bands” in the animal’s midsection.
The animals have scaly tails and long snouts adorned with two nearly useless pea-sized eyes. They are vulnerable to oncoming traffic because of poor eyesight and their singular focus on hunting for grubs and insects.
Among nicknames for the armadillo is “Texas speed bump.” It’s a species that often ends up as roadkill because of its bizarre tendency to jump straight up when it’s scared. This skill helps it to avoid predators in the wild, but when crossing a busy road, it will leap right into a car’s bumper. Its plating can cause damage to vehicle headlights and can even puncture tires.
“I killed my first one this spring on a trip to Columbia, Missouri,” said Ruppert. “It got past my bumper, but then it jumped straight into the bottom of the car. It was at night, but I could see it was dead on the road in my rearview mirror with the tail lights.
“There do not seem to be any real barriers to these animals any more,” said Ruppert. “They seem to be heading farther north every year.”
Scientists confirm a great armadillo migration, partly because of climate change and warmer weather. Rivers are no impediment to their travel. They can swim and float across large bodies of water by gulping air into their intestines to make themselves buoyant.
According to Missouri’s Department of Conservation, these little tanks also can hold their breath and they simply walk across the bottom of streams and ponds. Their ability to cross bodies of water has helped expand their range.
Pesky Garden Pests
These creatures also wreak havoc on lawns and gardens as they forage. Armadillos dig up the ground, push their nose into the soil, and use their sticky tongues to collect beetles and other invertebrates, much like their relative, the sticky-tongued anteater. Excavating burrows to bear their young can also lead to conflicts with property owners.
“Armadillos are definitely on the increase in the St. Louis region,” said Robert Weaver, a Glendale resident and publisher of the Gateway Gardener. “The bulk of their diet being grubs, earthworms, ants, termites and other soil-dwelling invertebrates, armadillos do much the same kind of damage in lawns and gardens as skunks, groundhogs and gophers do.
“They dig holes in turf and uproot plants in gardens as they dig with powerful legs to excavate their meals,” Weaver added. “Repellents are available in garden centers, and since armadillos have a sensitive sense of smell, these may have some effectiveness.”
Though there is no hunting or trapping season for armadillos, the Wildlife Code of Missouri specifies that damage-causing armadillos may be trapped or shot to prevent further destruction. Cage traps can be effective in corralling the hard-shell pests.
“Trapping is an option and we do offer loaner cage traps,” said Dan Zarlenga, media specialist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. “Gardeners would be wise to put up perimeter fencing, rather than letting things get to the point where a trap is the solution.
“Armadillos are docile and won’t bite, so they can be handled,” said Zarlenga. “We do recommend gloves. They are natural carriers of the bacteria that cause leprosy, but there have been no armadillo-transmitted leprosy cases in Missouri at this point.”
Ancestors Not So Docile
Any gardeners upset with nuisance armadillos should consider that they were much more of a problem for our hominid ancestors about two-million years ago. South American ancestors of the armadillo, known as glypodons, were larger than cars and they could use their tails as weapons.
There is evidence these glypodons engaged in some human consumption. On the other hand, early human hunters helped drive the glypodons to extinction and may have used the shells of the dead animals for shelter.
“Armadillos sure look prehistoric, but thankfully they are not as big as in the distant past,” said Erin Shank of MDC’s Powder Valley Nature Center in Kirkwood. “Armadillos are among the weirdos of the animal world.
“They have four identical babies when they give birth,” explained Shank. “They can carry their fertilized eggs for up to a year before they start developing. In other words, they have the ability to wait until reproduction conditions are ideal before the babies start developing. And they can live 15 to 20 years.”
Shank said armadillos are here to stay in the St. Louis region because we no longer get the extended winter cold spells that cause their demise. She said Powder Valley Nature Center gets calls about the animals, sometimes because residents are simply startled by their appearance here.
“We are getting calls from gardeners about the damage that they do,” said Shank. “We do have loaner cage traps here at Powder Valley that can be used for raccoons, squirrels and armadillos. They can be borrowed for a week. We do not take or dispose of the animals trapped. That is the responsibility of residents who use them.”