There’s a leathery creature, which hasn’t always lived in Georgia, but which you may have seen dead on the side of the road or digging holes in your yard.
Rick Aiken of Gainesville, said he remembers calling Peter Gordon at Elachee Nature Science Center in 2013 when he first spotted a nine-banded armadillo in Gainesville.
“I gave him a call and said, ‘I found an armadillo,’” Aiken recounted. “He (Gordon) said, ‘No you didn’t.’”
Aiken said these calls became a regular occurrence, and after the first couple of sightings, Gordon started believing him and dubbed him the “armadillo watchman.”
Most of the ones he’s spotted are dead on the side of Thompson Bridge Road or Dawsonville Highway.
However, don’t let the mortality rate fool you. Armadillos thrive in Georgia.
“They’re interesting little guys,” Aiken said. “If you’re walking in the woods and run up on them, they’ll scare the devil out of you. They’ll jump straight up.”
Donnie Brown, who has lived in Hall for the past 40 years, said he started seeing armadillos in Gainesville three years ago, but only rarely. Now, he said his armadillos sightings have become as frequent as his opossum encounters.
“This year it just seemed to just explode,” Brown said. “I’ve seen them out in the wild around creeks, looking for grubs in the softer dirt.”
Brown said armadillo populations in the county seem to be denser around North Hall.
From the coast to North Georgia
Hans Neuhauser of Athens, who has devoted his life to keeping his “hand in science,” has kept a careful eye on armadillo populations in Georgia since he spotted his first one in Glynn County during the early ‘70s.
He now has shoeboxes full of 3-by-5-inch cards with records of locations, dates and descriptions of the armadillo sightings.
Neuhauser is no stranger to monitoring mammals, having earned his master’s at the University of Georgia studying bats of Afghanistan and discovering the only known right whale calving ground off the coast of Georgia in 1982. Neuhauser said he helped create a recovery plan for the right whale, one of the most endangered large whales in the world.
When asked why he has spent decades tracking armadillos, Neuhauser said “curiosity” inspired him, as well as the drive to document a “phenomenon that had not occurred before.”
“I’ve also found that a lot of what I’ve done in my life has been serendipitous,” he said.
In the early ‘80s, Neuhauser said he noticed armadillo populations moving inland from the coast of Georgia.
The mammals’ range continued to grow, and Neuhauser said he spotted his first one in Clarke County in June 2002. In 2010, he said a staff member at Elachee gave him a call to report a sighting in Hall County.
From his research, he said armadillos in Georgia have stopped short of passing through the mountains, not because of difficulty with the elevation, but because of the cold weather.
Garrett Hibbs, Hall County UGA cooperative extension agent, said armadillos don’t tolerate temperatures below 36 degrees well, nor do they like temperatures above 85.
“I know with at least the university, they see the most northern point in Rome (for armadillo populations), and we’re (Hall) at the same latitude as them. They don’t really hibernate, so they have to stay active all year long.”
Neuhauser said he has noticed that rivers can act as both a barrier and a path for armadillos moving north. In Glynn, he said the mammals took around a year to successfully move past the Altamaha River and into McIntosh County. However, he said when they came into Athens, he thinks they traveled up the river corridors — the land area adjacent to the river.
“This provided them with basically unimpeded access,” Neuhauser said. “When they started showing up in Athens, they started showing up around the rivers.”
How they got here and how to coexist with them
Hibbs said nine-banded armadillos, which are native to South and Central America, were first introduced to Florida around the ‘50s. Neuhauser said he believes the mammals expanded their range into Georgia because of its suitable habitat for food and reproduction.
When Hibbs receives calls about armadillos from Hall residents, he said most of the time they are negative.
“Usually I’m giving people advice if they do have an armadillo issue come up,” he said. “Usually they’ve gotten in their yard and rooted up areas.”
When people see armadillos around their homes, Hibbs said they most likely have grubs nearby.
“Some research has shown ... that 99% of an armadillo’s diet is beetle larvae and a combination of ants, wasps — from eggs to the adult stage,” he said.
If people want to get rid of the armadillos around their homes, Hibbs recommends either eliminating their food source or trapping the mammals. Armadillos are not protected by law, so Hibbs said they can be eaten, hunted and captured any time of the year.
Although getting leprosy from an armadillo is rare, he recommends wearing gloves before handling one.
“There are only two cases in the U.S. of someone contracting leprosy from wild armadillos, and both of those were in Texas and a case where people were eating undercooked armadillo,” he said.For more information about trapping an armadillo, contact Hibbs at firstname.lastname@example.org.