A new critter is fast becoming a common sight in central Kansas. It has a tiny head with a long pointy little snout and perky little ears, much like an anteater. It’s armor-plated from head to toe, sort of like a mini rhinoceros. It has claws so long they seem out of proportion to the rest of its body. Its tail is as long as its body, and is jointed and armor plated clear to the tip. Yup, you guessed it, it’s an armadillo.
Although very common throughout Texas and much of Oklahoma, it was once thought they could never survive our central and northern Kansas winters due to their intolerance to cold. Biologists are now rethinking that since they are obviously surviving well here in central Kansas and are not uncommon even into parts of Nebraska. A few years ago I spent a day with a trapper west of here in Stafford Co. checking bobcat traps in the middle of January. At one stop we walked up an old farm lane lined with big cedar trees and he showed me where armadillos had been scratching and foraging in the thick mat of needles and cedar debris under the trees; their distinctive three-toed scratch marks gave them away. It is now believed that soft and sandy soil allowing them to easily forage for grubs and worms and to dig burrows is more important to their survival than temperature.
The Nine Banded Armadillo is the state mammal of TX, and originally came from South America. They are covered, front and rear, with hard, immoveable shell-like material. This armor is connected around the middle of their body with nine bands of moveable boney plate, much like an accordion, which allows them to move around and to roll into a ball when threatened. They have very poor eyesight but extremely sensitive hearing. It’s believed they can hear grubs several inches under the ground. An instinctive reaction to jump straight into the air when startled is probably why they seem to be frequent road kill victims. Because their metabolism requires a constant intake of food, they cannot tolerate long periods of severe weather, and are extremely sensitive to cold. They are classified as omnivorous, meaning they will eat practically anything; however, earthworms, grubs, insects and insect larvae make up the vast majority of their diet. The long claws and narrow pointed snout equip them perfectly for digging out this food. These dining habits are both a blessing and a curse. Armadillos rid lawns of destructive grubs, but they also relish beneficial earthworms, and the whole process wreaks havoc with the yards and gets them into hot water with landowners and golf course superintendents.
As if the outward appearance of Nine Banded Armadillos does not make them unique enough, their reproductive process makes them even more amazing. They typically breed in July, but the fertilized embryo lies in a sort of dormant state in the female until November, when it begins to grow. She gives birth to four young in March. These four young are always the same sex, and are identical quadruplets, because they form from the same egg! Armadillos are the only known mammals that give birth to multiple young from the same egg with any regularity.
I believe Nine Banded Armadillos continue moving northward into Kansas for a couple reasons. While we have cold snaps every winter, as a whole our winters are not that bad anymore and obviously the armadillo has found a way to adapt to them. Now visualize the “zillions” of acres of sand hills and otherwise sandy soil in central KS, all of which make for easy digging and burrowing. Add to that all the golf courses with their lovely greens and fairways and the innumerable acres of lawns into which we Kansans pour millions of dollars and hours each year to keep pristine. Viola! Armadillo Heaven! I predict we should “bone up” on our Armadillo removal techniques, as I don’t foresee them leaving this “armadillo heaven” anytime soon. In fact, since we see so many dead along the road, Joyce suggests we name the armadillo as our “Kansas state road kill.”
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Steve Gilliland can be contacted by email at email@example.com.