Armadillos don’t mean to do it. They just can’t help themselves.
When they’re startled, they reflexively jump straight up, sometimes three feet straight up. It’s a move that doesn’t work well when an automobile is right above them. Even their armored shell isn’t protection when being dribbled like a basketball.
But flattened armadillos are one way that Carissa Turner studies the animal.
A master’s student in environmental science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Turner has been tracking armadillos on their northward journey in the Southeast.
“It was just Texas and Florida, and now they’re spreading from both of those,” Turner said. “They’re getting reports in the Appalachians in North Carolina and Tennessee at really high altitudes. There’ve been reports of them up in Illinois.”
Average temperatures are rising across the South, and armadillos need warm weather because they don’t do especially well in the cold, Turner said. Cities are especially attractive to them, she said, because there’s always a certain level of heat radiating from the pavement and buildings.
To keep tabs on the odyssey of the animals—who originated in South America—she’s using three motion-activated cameras at Reflection Riding and Arboretum and Nature Center at the base of Lookout Mountain. In addition, other researchers and naturalists from across the state are providing data to her.
“We have 500 points in Tennessee where they’ve been found in the last five years. So there’s a lot, and that’s just the ones people see,” she said.
Seeing armadillos can be tricky since they’re small—about the size of “a chunky house cat,” Turner said—and mostly nocturnal.
It’s one of the reasons they’re frequently hit by cars. Unlike deer, raccoons, opossums and other wild animals, armadillos’ eyes don’t shine in car headlights.
“They’re black lumps. They’re very small, and they’re not fast,” she explained.
The motion cameras at Reflection Riding haven’t given her a ton of information, Turner said, so to bridge the gap in her research, she often uses roadkill to pinpoint locations that can be found through GPS by other researchers.
She also takes blood samples from the dead armadillos to check for the flesh-eating disease leprosy— now called Hansen’s disease by the Centers for Disease Control—which the animals may carry.
Hansen’s disease is transmitted through airborne droplets or skin-to-skin contact, so there are few cases in which humans have been infected by armadillos, Turner said.
The CDC says there’s a very low risk for humans being infected by leprosy at all because more than 95% of all people have natural immunity to the disease.
In Turner’s study, none of the 26 armadillos she’s tested in the Chattanooga area had Hansen’s disease, most likely because below-freezing temperatures in winter kill the bacteria, she said.
For the most part, armadillos only are a problem when they live near people because, when searching for bugs with their large front claws, they dig holes. When those holes are in yards, armadillos become pests.
Teaching people how to live with armadillos is one of Turner’s goals.
“I want to help educate people about them, how to coexist because they’re here. They’re not going anywhere,” she said.
There are a couple of ways to prevent armadillo-dug holes in your yard, she suggested.
“You can put rocks and logs where you don’t want them to go. They can’t move them. They’re not that strong.
“Then there also are spices like cayenne pepper. You can sprinkle that in your yard and that’ll keep them out of those areas. But you don’t need to kill them.”
Carissa Turner has been keeping tabs on armadillo migration with motion-activated cameras at Reflection Riding and Arboretum and Nature Center.