More armadillos showing up in Southern Illinois

Monday, January 9, 2006

The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- At least it's not cougars this time.

Dr. Clay Nielsen, an ecologist with Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Cooperative Wildlife Research Lab, says there have been a number of confirmed reports about a strange critter not typically associated with Southern Illinois -- the armadillo.

There are 20 species of armadillo. The nine-banded is the one said to be showing up in Southern Illinois. Such armadillos are about the size of a house cat, armored, football shaped, with long noses and long tails. They grunt and have a musky odor. They are really good diggers, they can run very fast if properly motivated, they eat insects. When startled, they can bounce about four feet into the air.

"We don't have any idea how many there are in Southern Illinois," Nielsen said.

But there have been enough live sightings, and enough positively identified roadkill, to confirm that they're here.

Nielsen said he has had to become something of an armadillo expert as sightings of the bizarre little mammals have increased in the area. It's been tricky. The armored animals haven't been here long enough to have an established range of habitat.

And there aren't yet enough of them to know how an armadillo population will behave in southern Illinois. Either way, if they are coming on their own, they probably plan to stay.

"People always ask if it's good or bad," Nielsen said. "I don't like to think about it that way. If it's nature, there's nothing we can do. I think this is just a natural expansion."

A natural expansion with a little human help. Armadillos like some of the landscape changes that have taken place over the last 150 years, Nielsen said. They don't appear to be afraid of people, so they don't mind living near them. They even seem to like to travel by road, which explains why the most common sightings are after they have been hit by vehicles.

"It's really too early to tell how they'll fit in here," Nielsen said. "A lot of our wildlife in this area is close to urban or populated areas. If coyotes and bobcats can fit in, I'm sure armadillos can."

Nielsen said no one is currently tracking armadillo sightings. He doesn't know if there are enough armadillos here to constitute a breeding population.

The Illinois Natural History Survey Reports noted there have been 80 armadillo sightings in recent years, primarily in 22 southwestern Illinois counties.

Nielsen said the northward march of the armadillo is likely to stop at central Illinois, where it is too cold for the armadillo to thrive.

"They don't seem to pose any major threats to the ecosystem," he said. "People aren't going to be scared of them. They won't have near the impact cougars would have [if they migrated to southern Illinois]."

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