Nine-Banded Armadillo is Weird but Adaptive

On a February trip to Georgia’s Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, we came across a nine-banded armadillo foraging in the grass.  There are armadillos much closer to home in Charleston County Parks and Beidler Forest, but it was fun to have a few moments to watch this one forage.  They are expanding their range, and it is likely that we may see one out here on this barrier island in the years to come.

Traveling Over or Under Water

How is this for a superpower? Armadillos can inflate their intestines with air and turn themselves into floats, allowing currents to carry them to new territories.  They can also hold their breath under water. This is why we should keep an eye out for them.  In Florida, they have been shown to be able to get over and under fences.  They migrated to the United States from further south on their own, and mingled with a few escapees from zoos, and they’ve been steadily migrating north. This article from The State quotes a DNR Biologist as being surprised that they have moved into the upstate of South Carolina, where the thick clay soils are harder to dig in than the coastal sands.  

They are predators of sea turtle nests, but not on the scale of some of those other predators like coyote, fox and raccoon. Nonetheless, the Department of Natural Resources has identified them in their recent predator tracks publication.

Leaping when Startled

I was fascinated watching them forage. If something startles them, they can leap straight upward, .  (Supposedly this adds to their highway mortality, because they purportedly leap into passing cars. ) They move in a funny shuffling, meandering style, and I am not sure these even noticed we were there.

I think they’re in the “so ugly they’re cute category, and some people describe them as looking like “possums with a shell”.  Armadillo babies, however, can’t catch a ride in a convenient pouch.  They are born in burrows, (almost always as quadruplets) excavated by the mother with her shovel-like claws.  Once the babies leave, these burrows create habitat for other animals like rabbits, possums, mink, skunks and snakes.

A keen sense of smell and a long sticky tongue

Armadillos are generalist foragers, using their keen sense of smell to find insects like wasps, fire ants, snails and grubs. They’ll also consume ground nesting bird and turtle eggs.  There are a few beaches in SC that have reported them preying on sea turtle nests, but the level of predation by armadillos is nothing like the level by coyotes or raccoons.  And while consumption of fire ants is certainly helpful to homeowners, many complain that armadillos are tearing up their lawns in unwelcome ways.

Not Particularly Well-Regarded

I had heard that they were at Audubon’s Beidler Forest so I reached out to my naturalist friends Jen Tyrrell and Matt Johnson there.  Jen says they might be

the most unobservant and oblivious species I’ve ever come in contact with! They have such poor vision and hearing that they will walk right up to you without even realizing you’re there! In this video I was talking to one and it walked right up to my shoe and only turned around and ran once it smelled my snake boots!

The Biedler staff finds them to be a slight nuisance, because they can burrow so significantly under outdoor structures that it can compromise the integrity of those structures.  They keep a close eye on burrowing armadillos.  Matt and Jen acknowledge that the little guys have a certain charm, and we need to respect the adaptability that, like coyotes, has them moving into new territory.

A few more photos from Beidler:


Need a Longer Look?

I couldn’t stop watching the one we saw in February.  It will be interesting to see how their range changes!