by Whit Gibbons

April 7, 2013

I recently received the following questions, which are variations of ones I have received in the past about armadillos.

Q: I have heard from friends who have a problem with armadillos digging up their whole yards. The last time I saw one was in Texas. Do they now occur farther east? Are armadillos mammals? What do they eat, and will they bite? What can be done about them?

A: Armadillos belong to a distinctive family of insect-eating mammals. Most of the 20 or so species live in Central and South America, but the nine-banded armadillo is native to the United States. Questions from people about how to get rid of armadillos in suburban neighborhoods have become more frequent as these armored burrowers continue to extend their geographic range. In the 1950s nine-banded armadillos were native to Louisiana and Texas, and they had been introduced into southern Florida, where, by the 1960s, they were very conspicuous. By the 1990s armadillos had moved up the Florida Peninsula into Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. One biologist noted that "armadillos crossed I-20 going north in 1995."

An armadillo's food comes from beneath the soil, which they dig up with enormous shovel-like front feet as they search for beetle grubs living in the dirt. They also eat hundreds of other kinds of insects and worms. Part of their nuisance factor comes from their digging in soft soil, such as raised beds, tilled gardens, and watered lawns. On the positive side of the ledger, armadillos eat fire ants, which some folks might think outweighs any bad traits they might have.

If you can find an armadillo during daytime, removing it from an area is easy. Chase it down, grab the long tail, and lift it off the ground. Armadillos are near-sighted, so it is often easy to get close enough to catch them. I have never heard of an armadillo biting a person, but they do flail their feet trying to escape and can scratch. Let me qualify this message by saying I am not recommending this as a standard armadillo-removal technique for the average home owner.

Armadillos are primarily nocturnal and the way to catch one at night is to put a live mammal trap in front of an active burrow. Armadillos dig underground tunnels to sleep in. Arrange a pair of boards on edge to form a funnel leading from the burrow opening into the trap. Steel mesh traps with a door that closes when the animal enters can be purchased from stores that sell wildlife equipment. A caveat: if the trap is not securely built, an adult armadillo can rip it open with its powerful front feet.

What do you do with a captured armadillo? Releasing it several miles away in a wild habitat is one approach. Be sure you do not introduce it into an area where it could become a pest to someone else.

In addition to their bizarre appearance, a talent for long-distance dispersal, and the ability to eat fire ants, armadillos from Louisiana and Texas have one particularly unusual trait. They are, aside from humans, the only animals in the world that contract Hansen's disease, more commonly known as leprosy. Armadillos in Florida, the origin of those moving north in the eastern United States, seldom if ever have leprosy. Documented cases are almost exclusively from armadillos in Louisiana and Texas.

Hansen's disease, which is still prevalent in human populations in other parts of the world as well as in some regions of this country, is caused by a type of bacteria closely related to the one that causes tuberculosis. How leprosy is transmitted remains unclear because medical researchers have had difficulty culturing leprosy bacteria in the laboratory. One way to have bacteria on hand for research is to keep armadillos that have leprosy in captivity at medical facilities. Perhaps medical researchers should also study the eastern form of the armadillo, which apparently does not get leprosy, to discover what makes those armadillos immune.

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