Toni O’Neil hasn’t had an armadillo arrive at Possumwood Acres Wildlife Sanctuary in Onslow County — but she’s expecting them.
“It’s not outside of the realm of possibility,” she said.
According to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the bony-plated mammals are expanding their range in North Carolina and that makes perfect sense to O’Neil.
Armadillos are well-known in states like Texas and Florida, and there are populations in South Carolina. With mild enough winters there’s no reason they shouldn’t head further north into North Carolina.
“We knew it was just a matter of time,” O’Neil said.
And that’s just fine with her.
O’Neil has adored the armadillo since she saw a picture of one when she was young and later saw her first live armadillo while traveling along I-95 in Florida to see family when she was in college.
“Armadillos are really cool. I’d love to have one here,” she said.
For now, she keeps a collection of armadillo figurines and items at home and has posted an Armadillo Crossing sign at the sanctuary in Hubert.
The sign raises questions from visitors and when they ask if they are found around here, she tells them they likely will be.
When the sanctuary in Hubert does get one, O’Neil said she’ll do what she does any time she gets an animal she hasn’t cared for before and reach out to other rehabilitation experts who can give her guidance on their care.
Wildlife Resources officials are also keeping an eye out for the bony-plated mammals and are asking for the public’s help to document observations of the them. Anyone who sees one is asked to contact Extension Wildlife Biologist Ann May at 919-707-0068 or email@example.com.
The nine-banded armadillo is about the size of a house cat or opossum and it has a gray to brownish-gray body with narrow, jointed armor bands on its midsection.
To date there have been no documented sightings in Onslow or Carteret counties, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t there or won’t be in the near future.
“Those are certainly places where we would expect armadillos could potentially be spotted so we would ask people to watch for them,” wildlife biologist Jeff Marcus with the Wildlife Resources Commission said.
The first confirmed armadillo sighting in North Carolina occurred in 2008. A number of the reports in North Carolina have been in the western part of the state but a recent sighting was in New Hanover County. The sighting came as no surprise to wildlife biologist Colleen Olfenbuttel, who also works for the state’s Wildlife Resources Commission.
She considers Southeastern North Carolina one of two hotspots for armadillos, which are also emerging in the mountains in the western part of the state.
By all accounts, we should expect to see more of them.
Armadillos, long associated with states in the Deep South, have been slowly moving north.
Around 1850, armadillos, native to South and Central America, were recorded in Texas. By the start of the Cold War, they had traversed the Mississippi River and moved into Florida. Eventually, they moved as far as Tennessee and South Carolina.
As their populations have increased, their range has broadened.
Human development fosters their mobility. Armadillos can use roads and highways as travel corridors, Olfenbuttel said.
In 2009, the Wildlife Commission took a report from a driver in Bladen County who reported seeing an armadillo jumping off a Florida truck full of palm trees. Armadillos could come here on trucks or with people, but Olfenbuttel said they can also wander in on their own.
Armadillos are also swimmers.
Olfenbuttel said they are able to let air into their stomach, providing buoyancy that helps their swimming ability around lakes and streams and other waterways.
“One of the reasons they’ve been able to expand their range,” she said.
Across the border in South Carolina, biologists have confirmed that armadillos live in the southern part of the Palmetto State. Although biologists haven’t confirmed as many armadillos in the northern part of the state, they accept they are there, Olfenbuttel said.
Here to stay
So far, armadillos have been sighted in 12 North Carolina counties.
While armadillos are at a "very, very low density" in the state, Olfenbuttel believes that will change.
Within the next decade or two, it would not surprise her if armadillos are documented in nearly every county in the state. Mountain populations could be fed by several states, but South Carolina is the main pipeline for this area.
Armadillos are limited by cold weather. For one, they can freeze to death, but frozen ground also makes it difficult for them to reach food. While cold weather could be more of a concern for mountain armadillos, it is less of a concern in Southeastern North Carolina.
"Your winters are very mild, so winter won’t have much of a depression on their population," Olfenbuttel said.
The slow-moving creatures roam anywhere from pine forests to coastal dunes. They also frequent man-made areas such as cemeteries, parks or roadsides. But with poor vision, they are known to wind up as road kill. Most of the sightings in Brunswick and Robeson counties, for example, were from dead armadillos on the road.
The armadillo feeds primarily on invertebrates, including insects, snails and earthworms. Depending on temperatures, the armadillo can be nocturnal, crepuscular or active during the day.
Armadillos can carry and transmit leprosy, but wildlife officials said the number of armadillo-to-human cases is low.
Wildlife officials recommend wearing gloves when handling any wild animal, including live or dead armadillos. It is also suggested that gloves be worn when gardening in an area that may be frequented by an armadillo as its waste carries the bacteria that leads to leprosy.
But the armadillo is not an aggressive animal, and one of the things that may put it at risk may be its own defense mechanism.
According to the Wildlife Resources Commission, the armadillo reacts to danger primarily by springing into the air and fleeing rapidly. It’s a reaction that can be fatal to the armadillo when it faces oncoming traffic.
Recently in Pender County, a driver told state troopers he swerved off the road to avoid hitting an armadillo on N.C. 53. The driver totaled a Mazda when it crashed into a utility pole about 2 a.m. Monday, said Trooper Richard Hendrickson. "The armadillo survived the crash," Hendrickson deadpanned. "He fled the scene."
Trooper D.S. Gould, who investigated the crash, suspects the driver may have dozed off.
"I don’t think he saw an armadillo," Gould said. "If he saw anything, it was probably a possum."
But then again, maybe not.