ST. LOUIS -- Armadillos, which began pushing into southern Missouri in the early 1980s, have been showing up more frequently in St. Louis and surrounding counties.
The small armored animals, long associated with warm weather Southern states, have been showing that they can adapt to winter weather in central Missouri and southern Illinois.
"They are becoming more and more common," said Tom Meister, a wildlife damage biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation in the St. Louis area. He said armadillos are more common in Crawford and Washington counties, on the fringes of the St. Louis area.
The football-sized creatures have big claws and a long nose, and they feast on beetles, grubs and earthworms. They have left some yards looking as if a "plow had gone through," Meister said.
Because the armadillo is a non-native species, Meister said, there aren't many restrictions preventing a Missouri property owner from shooting or trapping them, although it rarely goes that far.
There have been a growing number of armadillo sightings in southern Illinois, especially in the last five years, said Clay Nielsen, a research scientist at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Since reaching Texas in the mid-1800s, the armadillo has pushed into the southeast and now the lower Midwest. Despite the animal's preference for warmer weather, Nielsen said "it is too early to say" if global warming is contributing to the expansion.
"It has been a slow, gradual spread over a 150-year period," Nielsen said.
Armadillos don't hibernate and continue to feed on insects through the winter. But heavy snowpacks, extreme cold and lack of rainfall make it harder to reach their food supply. Some experts say that will likely prevent them from pushing farther north.
Two years ago, Missouri Department of Transportation maintenance workers in Franklin County weren't seeing armadillos among the road kill they clear from highways. Now they see about one a week, said spokeswoman Linda Wilson.
By contrast, maintenance workers in the Department of Transportation's 12-county region near Springfield see them "every day," said spokesman Bob Edwards, who said the numbers seem to increase every year.
Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com