Originally created 07/05/97

Invasion of the armadillo

Paul Johns can remember when all the armadillos were in Florida.

Today, growing numbers of the armor-plated, insect-snarfing mammals are enjoying life in ever widening portions of Georgia and South Carolina.

"Now we're seeing them in Burke and Screven counties, all through the areas adjacent to river bottoms," said Mr. Johns, a biologist with the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory at Savannah River Site.

The shy, mostly nocturnal creatures actually are native to Texas and South America, and were released from roadside zoos in Florida back in the 1930s, Mr. Johns said. Their march north has been under way ever since.

The last armadillo survey was conducted in the mid-1980s, focusing mainly on sightings in South Carolina, he said. With mounting evidence of the creatures expanding their range, a broader survey is now needed.

"There's a lot of interest in redoing the survey this fall, both in North Carolina and Georgia, along with South Carolina," he said. "Theoretically, they could occur up to the the edge of the foothills."

Most scientists agree the main tourist routes from Florida are also the routes taken by armadillos, some of them hitchhiking with well-meaning tourists who - having second thoughts - discarded them on roadsides.

"When we did the earlier surveys, most sightings were associated with the major highways from Florida - U.S. 301, I-95, road like that," he said.

The creatures are likely here to stay, mainly because they have no enemies, other than speeding autos and the occasional persistent dog.

Vic VanSant, a game biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Thomson office, said south Richmond County sightings are becoming more and more common.

"There's occasionally sightings in lower Richmond County, but a good many in Burke County," he said. "But they definitely have moved north. When I was in school in the '70s, it was uncommon to find one north of Darien."

Naturalist John James Audubon described the armadillo as "a small pig saddled with the shell of a turtle." The creatures are exceptional diggers, sometimes ravaging lawns or gardens in a single night.

"And they don't make very good pets," Mr. Johns said. "To start with, they're very difficult to keep in captivity. And their claws are very sharp."


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