Although still somewhat of an oddity in Southern Illinois, armadillos are apparently here to stay.
"They had some sightings as early as the 1970s, but between 1999 and 2003 they had records of 76 from 22 counties," said Bob Bluett, head of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources' furbearer division. "Seven additional counties were added in 2004. At first, we kind of thought they were pranks from people going on spring break in Florida. Now, we've had some instances of live, free-ranging animals that have been found.
"They almost have to be considered residents, but their numbers are low enough that you probably wouldn't run into them casu-ally."
Lloyd Nelson, Jackson County's animal control officer, said the first armadillo he found in Jackson County was in 2001.
"At the time we found it, we became convinced it had hitched a ride up here on a tractor-trailer truck or a railroad car," he said. "We made arrangement with one of the local wildlife rehabilitators and she shipped it back to Florida."
Since that time, Nelson said he has had 18 documented sightings in Jackson County alone.
"I get calls reporting them fairly frequently," he said. "It's not rare or uncommon."
Anecdotally, Nelson said the most frequent sightings appear to be up and down Illinois 3. He said they also seem to be following river and creek systems.
Bluett said the armadillo appears to be spreading its range northward from Florida to Texas.
"They've expanded their range tremendously as a species, from basically north of the Rio Grande in 1850 to today when they're pushing into Southern Illinois," he said. "I haven't seen anybody explain why."
In Missouri, the critters have been found as far north as St. Louis.
The creeping expansion hasn't created a great deal of concern among biologists.
"Given that they've expanded their range so much since 1850 and nothing has fallen apart, I guess you wouldn't say the wheels have fallen off the cart," Bluett said. "In terms of doing a lot of damage, they do a lot of digging. If you're a homeowner, that's bad. If you're a rabbit looking to get out of harm's way, that's good."
"The only thing they will do is golf courses will hate them," Nelson said. "When they dig a hole, they dig a heckuva hole."
Generally, armadillos are found in brushy areas with grassland nearby.
Armadillos dig both for food and protection. Their diet consists primarily of insects. They live in burrows.
"It's real critical to their survival, especially in the northern part of their range," Bluett said. "If they can't maintain their tem-perature, then they aren't going to make it through the winter. Being underground during the winter and the real hot parts of the summer is real critical."
He said armadillos don't have a true hibernation period, but usually stay underground during the winter.
Bluett said armadillos don't present much of a danger.
"They have real flat teeth and no canines," he said. "They have sharp claws.
"If you harass them, they curl up. Because of the teeth being completely flat, biting isn't a problem. The claws, if you pick one up, they contract and open up. If you picked one up and started messing with it, there is a possibility you could get clawed."
However, they are not aggressive.
"They are kind of near-sighted," Bluett said. "You can get fairly close to them. Then, they see you and they run like heck."
Armadillos are being used in genetic research. The embryo splits four ways after being fertilized, resulting in four genetically indentical individuals.