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Armadillos have arrived in downstate Illinois and are heading north

CHICAGO — Every now and then the Illinois Department of Natural Resources puts out a public request for sightings of armadillos, anywhere in the state: Folks, if you see something, say something. And periodically, yes, they do get a handful of reports of armadillos, scattered here and there. But when they asked again in February, they received more than 400 reports in 24 hours, from across the state, though (mostly) southern counties. Illinois, you’re seeing armadillos beneath your sheds. You’re seeing armadillos in your gardens. You’re even seeing them waddling across your lawns in the dying light of winter afternoons. You’re seeing them on warm summer nights and, increasingly, on cooler spring days.

Last summer, one was found (dead) behind a Kia dealership in Springfield.

Jeff Holshouser, who lives just south of Carbondale, found five recently in his yard. “I eradicated them,” he said. Meaning? “Meaning, I removed them unwillingly, without offering a chance of continued life support. You’ve got to — they’re getting thick down here.”

In many cases, the response to a live armadillo in Illinois has been confusion — just what in the long-snouted, armored-shelled hell am I looking at here? In the central Illinois town of Pekin, not far from Peoria, a schoolteacher named Mindy Wendling caught one in her flower pots.

“My daughter says there’s something in the window well. Whatever it was, it was hard to see. It was throwing rocks and dirt at the window as it dug, so much that we had to climb on a step stool to look down. And it’s pouring rain out. My daughter says, ‘It’s an armadillo.’ My husband and I are like, ‘OK, sure. Illinois is not Texas.’ But she’s like, ‘No, really.’ And the next night, it’s back and it is throwing so much mud at the windows. So I shined a light on it, and this thing, it jumps straight up into the air. I called the DNR. They asked me if they could trap it and I said, ‘Whatever you want — but wait, why do I have an armadillo in my window?’

“It’s like a tiny prehistoric creature, so you think, whoa, that’s out of place.”

Or as many Illinois residents in the southern half of the state have concluded: That’s also climate change in action, in real time — a known resident of the South pushing north, into a warmer Midwest.

Wendling soon heard from nearby farmers who said armadillos were tearing into their fields. Be on the lookout: Beast about the size of a cat, sand-colored, with a shell, anteater snout, head in the dirt. They’re acquiring a nickname around Illinois: possums on the half-shell. Even though, as a subtropical species culturally associated with the southern United States, they had a nickname: Texas speed bumps. Indeed, if you do see one, it’ll probably be dead. Tom Brantley, who owns a wildlife control business in Jackson County, told me a joke: “Why did the chicken cross the road? To get a look at that dead armadillo.”

Increasingly, however, you may see one alive.

Chicago — armies of armadillos are one of the few things we don’t have to worry about. For the moment.

The center of Illinois armadillo activity is Carbondale, and in the past 30 years, there have been only two credible reports of armadillos in Cook County (as well as two in DuPage County). Generally associated with Central America and first established in the United States in the 1850s, it’s taken armadillos 170 years to settle into Illinois. But as our springs become wetter and our winters milder, as the soil stays warmer throughout the year (allowing insects to live longer) — all ideal conditions for armadillos — biologists expect a northward march, sniff by sniff. It’s not unusual now to hear reports of armadillos (which do not hibernate) on a snowy field, nose in the air, smelling for food.

Right now, they’re still a local novelty.

In December, Gov. J.B. Pritzker noted the presence of armadillos in a tweet celebrating Wildlife Conservation Day. Eric Schauber, director of the Illinois Natural History Survey, characterized them as “a visible new species in the state,” thankfully “not causing ecological harm.” Since they made it to Illinois largely on their own four feet and were not introduced by people, they’re not even classified as “invasive.”

But in North Carolina and Virginia, where armadillos are also relatively new additions, they are becoming a routine source of ripped-up gardens and lawns. Same for southern Illinois, where homeowners with similar problems told me their honeymoon with the cute creature is over.

“They’re burrowing under foundations, porches,” said David Easton of Easton’s Wildlife and Mole Control in Jackson County. “They don’t have sheer numbers yet to be widely destructive, but I bet the population is bigger than we know.”

And the situation itself, is more serious.

For starters, biologists are watching the settling of armadillos across Illinois as more than a lawn-care issue. “It’s a living illustration of the insidious effects of climate change,” said Trent Ford, Illinois state climatologist. “When you talk (climate change), you really have to tailor it to your audience, but even someone ideologically conservative (on the subject of climate change), when they see an armadillo in Illinois, walking around their backyard, they tend to recognize, OK, something’s different now.”

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Driving into Carbondale, headed for the main campus of Southern Illinois University, where the majority of research on armadillos in Illinois has been happening, you realize, in spring, before the bloom has begun, you are looking for a beige mammal foraging through a beige backdrop of beige grass, against a landscape of beige buildings. Such as the Life Science II building, where the armadillo is being studied intently, in the zoology department on the third floor. Or rather, was being studied intently. Carly Haywood, a former graduate student from western Illinois now spending her time on tortoises in the Nevada desert, conducted many of the recent armadillo studies and expeditions. Her mentor, Agustin Jimenez, had been following the northward march of armadillos for years, but he’s got his hands full.

He’s an assistant professor and biologist focused on the relationship between parasites and animals, and in his office, the stress and irony are evident: We’re discussing armadillos while wearing masks due to a pandemic often associated (however inconclusively) with the mingling of animals, humans and disease.

Which is not unrelated here.

Armadillos can carry leprosy. They’re one of its few sources. It’s a rare occurrence for an armadillo to get someone sick, scientists say, and difficult for someone to contract leprosy from an armadillo; generally, you’ve got to eat an armadillo undercooked or be infected by an exposed cut. Leprosy is hard to pass on.

But it’s not impossible.

Jimenez says he worries about the day when someone in Illinois goes to a doctor with a strange rash and has leprosy but the armadillos here are never considered because — why would they be in Illinois? It all sounds quite improbable. Right now, he’s more concerned about the proliferation of nasty new species of Southern ticks throughout Illinois. Though the steady immigration of armadillos is never far from his mind.

For many decades, his research has dovetailed with the movement of armadillos into the Midwest. A native of Mexico City, he studied the animal mostly in Latin America; when he arrived at the University of Nebraska in the 1990s — to study parasites and co-evolution, as part of his Ph.D. program — armadillos were already there.

“People in Nebraska were surprised then. They would assume it escaped from a zoo or was a released pet.”

But scientists knew: Years of reports have long suggested the animal’s range was expanding north. By the time Jimenez came to Carbondale 14 years ago, “I couldn’t believe it, but they were here too.”

He told colleagues to spread the word: If they saw an armadillo, even dead, he wanted it. He became the Southern Illinois armadillo guy.

The door of his office now has a yellow “Armadillo Crossing” sign. At the back of the long room, otherwise cluttered with research papers and data sheets, there is a small shrine of sorts to the creature — figurines, sent to him by his mother and family members, by friends, some just by fans of his research.

And beneath that, the mother lode, a binder thick with reports around Illinois:

Armadillo spotted on Potters Road.

Behind campus.

Outside Rendleman Orchards.

Off Old Route 13.

The Illinois DNR gets the occasional sighting of a cougar or a black bear or even an elk in the state, often just passing through. But its gathering of armadillo sightings started in the early 1990s, then slowly increased for 20 years, and now, within the past few years, sightings are becoming routine. To be specific, Illinois has the nine-banded armadillo — of the creature’s 21 species, it’s the only one in the U.S.

Jimenez is convinced that armadillos, which are good swimmers and can hold their breaths for long periods, have been following river banks and creeks north out of Texas.

After a few years in Carbondale, Jimenez was seeing enough of them to start carrying a bucket in his car, so he could scoop up dead armadillos and bring them to SIU and test for leprosy. “My daughters and wife hate it. I take pictures, so my phone, now it’s like family pic, family pic, dead armadillo, family pic, dead armadillo ... ”

He didn’t expect armadillos to last many Illinois winters. “But I have been wrong several times with these animals.” At first, he was not convinced that climate change was driving them north. “And again, wrong. As one of my colleagues told me, this isn’t some side effect of climate change, this is climate change.”

He said that for a while, the state wasn’t interested. However, by 2016, curious about where armadillos were headed, his department started to receive research funds from the DNR, via the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act. Lynn Robbins, a biologist at Missouri State University who studies bats but grew fascinated by the growing armadillo population there — which he characterizes as “very stable and expanding” — reports a similar thing. He would ask Missouri DNR for a statewide survey, “I’d hear ‘We don’t have armadillos.’ They told me they were released pets! A year later they called me back: ‘Still interested in armadillos?’”

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Haywood grew up near Starved Rock State Park, in the small town of Ottawa. She spent 2 1/2 years of school on armadillos, the focus of her graduate degree at SIU. “They were endearing,” she said. “They’re clumsy, they didn’t care if they were making noise, they have horrible vision, and people see them as a desert animal when they are closer to a swamp creature. I learned a lot from them.”

She built on the work of Joyce Hoffman, a now-retired mammalogist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, who first looked into local armadillo populations two decades ago. Hoffman collected 80 sightings in 22 counties; she found reports that went back to the 1970s, then long stretches of silence. She decided they were arriving on barges or using bridges to get across the Mississippi River. They had some human help, however unintentional. She just wasn’t sure they would establish a population here.

She also never saw a live armadillo during her research. But Haywood trapped a dozen, even fit a few with trackers. She staked out spots near SIU in state parks and set up a Facebook page for tips that led to a windfall of sightings. But the range of those transmitters was limited. Funding wasn’t great, and the number of armadillos trapped is still too small to estimate the size of their population in the state. Still, in a paper she co-authored with Jimenez recently for the Journal of Parasitology, the Illinois armadillo was established as one of many species globally going through “range shifts,” spurred by a warming planet.

“We tend to gloss over the biological implications of climate change, and the armadillo in the Midwest is a perfect example of that overall shift,” said Thor Hanson, a Washington state biologist and author of “Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid: The Fraught and Fascinating Biology of Climate Change.” “Estimates now are that 25% to 85% of all species of plants and animals in the natural world are shifting their ranges in response to the climate. Even if it’s the lower end, 25%, that’s a tremendous shift in our ecology. And you start mixing up that many species, you receive all sorts of consequences.”

Southern species of flying squirrel colonizing Michigan.

Coupled albatrosses, typically monogamous, flying separate ways.

Alaskan grizzlies, so fond of salmon runs, now preferring berries that ripen sooner.

When the Illinois State Museum in Springfield introduced a new exhibit on climate change this month, the armadillo was included as an example of climate change happening in our backyards. According to climatologists, Illinois has grown slightly warmer and wetter in the past 120 years; in particular, Illinois winters have warmed a few degrees. Jimenez says this has given the armadillo a reason to tiptoe north. Even if one or two bad winters decimate a population, they creep forward again. They have an outsized resilience. Some local scientists — such as conversation biologist Anant Deshwal at Bradley University, who recently began his own research on the Illinois armadillo — suspect land development in the Southeast U.S. nudged them north, and that climate change accelerated that journey.

While there is more immediate concern for invasive kudzu vines and species of carp, there is still a lingering concern: Newly introduced species can bring diseases to a region.

This is why Haywood screened every dead armadillo she found for leprosy and Chagas disease, which armadillos are known to carry and can cause swelling and heart failure. That duty falls now to Jimenez. No armadillo tested at SIU carried either disease. But again without more funding, their sample is small.

Just last year, Jonathan Dyer, a dermatologist at the University of Missouri, contacted Robbins at Missouri State about an odd case. He was treating an elderly man in southern Missouri who tested positive for leprosy. Rare as it is, most patients in the U.S. who test positive have newly arrived from countries where leprosy is more frequent or are military members who served. This man was neither. “But he was being exposed to lots of armadillos now,” Dyer said. “His dog was catching and bringing them back to his house all the time.”

A positive Midwest case would not be a shock: In 2015, scientists at a Louisiana lab that serves as a national hub of leprosy research concluded 16% of armadillos in Florida have leprosy. Dyer thinks often of something he heard at a recent dermatology conference: Wherever armadillos travel, leprosy follows.

———

“They are not going to be where we want them to be, when we want them to be,” said Jimenez as we climbed from his car to stalk wild armadillos. They prefer dark, and it was early afternoon. On the plus side, the temperature gauge in his car read 79 degrees and it was only early March. Armadillos might take advantage of that heat to forage; on the other hand, they don’t get active in Illinois until late spring.

Jimenez lowered himself down the side of a muddy bank.

The air was cool with incongruous pockets of warmth.

“Oh they love this,” he said, noting the tree cover, decomposing wood, soft ground for tunneling, even better for bugs. Still, he rarely sees an armadillo that’s not dead. He held a branch aside and stepped slowly: “We’d see them alive more often if they didn’t jump.” Armadillos, when surprised, can leap high into the air — straight up, like a Looney Toons character. Picture one nosing along a highway at night, a large truck comes along. Scared, it jumps ... straight into the undercarriage.

Jimenez, back in his lab, has buckets and plastic bags full of smashed armadillo proof. In fact, Jimenez said, that we would be more likely to come across a black vulture — itself a relatively prolific new addition to the local ecosystem — feasting on dead armadillo. Or perhaps an armadillo (remember, bad eyesight) would just walk right into me. Happens around SIU — they bump into startled students from time to time.

The Mr. Magoo of the animal kingdom.

———

When the Illinois DNR asked the public for reports last winter, it noted the armadillo was “very distinct and is not easily confused with any other animal found in Illinois.” That’s not entirely correct. From a distance, they might resemble a house cat or possum. Still, culturally, historically — yes, they’re definitely out-of-towners.

They have leathery shells, a comical waddle. Their burrow holes can be so large and perfectly round as to look paranormal — a wildlife control worker in North Carolina told the Guardian newspaper, in a story on the Mid-Atlantic armadillo explosion, “It’s like hunting aliens.” They can stroll along the bottoms of rivers. They live up to 20 years. They give birth in fours. But no, they don’t curl up into a complete softball; or rather, only the three-banded armadillo (endemic to Brazil) is able to do that.

For decades, received wisdom was that any weirdly out-of-place animal in the Midwest such as an armadillo was a mistake, a hiccup — an unwanted pet or misplaced zoo animal (indeed, in Florida, there is evidence that escapees of a roadside animal attraction gave birth to that state’s population). But broadly, armadillo immigration started in Texas in the 1800s. Depending who you ask, besides climate change, as land was cleared for ranches, as Native Americans (who sometimes hunted armadillo) were killed and forced from their homes — or likely, a combination of those factors — armadillos continued on.

To Arkansas, Louisiana, Colorado. By the late 1980s, Missouri had a decent population.

Today, the range of nine-banded armadillos extends from Argentina to Illinois; in the east, to Virginia, though researchers expect Pennsylvania to be the eventual new threshold. A recent paper, co-authored by Bruce Patterson, curator of mammals at the Field Museum, decided the armadillo is thriving here because it’s flexible with environment and food. Not ideal for Midwest winters, but just insistent enough.

A kind of living metaphor for the approach of climate doom, albeit in an adorable, eccentric package.

“They’re so ugly, they’re adorable,” said Melissa Gibson, owner of GRS Wildlife Control in South Carolina. “But they’re everywhere and they’re ruining our landscape.”

Closer to Carbondale, Karen Fiorino walked outside one day to find her dogs playing tug-of-war with an armadillo. “Poor creature. Still, kind of surreal.”

Jim Martin, a naturalist in Murphysboro, west of Carbondale, has been watching armadillos on trail cameras he’s installed around the state. “Sex among these things is the craziest thing you’ve ever seen! And they know to move among us undetected — while half-blind!

“As soon as you see them, you know: This world is changing. You see them, you have no doubt.”

———

Again, Chicago is probably too far north at the moment to get an armada of armadillos, said Seth Magle, director of the Urban Wildlife Institute at the Lincoln Park Zoo. “But then I would not be shocked if we did. And we shouldn’t be surprised. We should be prepared. We have this mindset that we built cities and excluded everything but rats and pigeons but if you know how natural selection works, animals find a way to make use of space.” He noted a recent survey of birds in Lincoln Park that found, though bird species have come and gone in Chicago, about the same number of species were there 100 years ago.

Wildlife diversity, of course, is essential.

Brett DeGregorio, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Arkansas, said the armadillo doesn’t receive credit for creating deep, habitable burrows recycled later by other species, such as raccoons. Still, right now, armadillos are not protected in Illinois. If they’re in your garden, you can remove them.

If you do, contact Agustin Jimenez at SIU. Or call the DNR.

They really don’t know how widespread the armadillo is yet, but they suspect, from anecdotal reports, there are far more than they know.

If only I saw one. I saw dead ones, splattered, pancaked, even one that appeared to be sleeping — as long as you ignored that half its body was gone. But no live ones. I followed Jimenez down the bank of another creek on the western edge of campus. “You are not lucky,” he told me. “Deer are like ducks here. And today, no deer, either. But if we saw an armadillo, you might think I planted it.”

We listened to the stream gurgle.

He peered into a hole beneath a fallen tree. He stood, transfixed. Squirrel nest. Raccoon tracks. He shook his head. “They are here,” he said, “just not here.” We stood in silence for a few more minutes. You know, he said, back when he lived in Mexico, he ate quite a few. They’re good barbecued, he said, but added quickly, he wonders if someone around here will eat one, and it’ll be the wrong one — and boom, leprosy.

Is armadillo meat worth the risk?

“To be honest,” he said, still scanning the woods, “tastes like chicken.”

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