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Attractive Environs Make Southern Missouri Prime Ground for Armadillo Invasion : Wildlife: The squat, armored critter is migrating north from Arkansas.

November 05, 1995|JERRY NACHTIGAL | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Motorists cruising the highways and byways of southern Missouri are doing a double-take these days. Joining the assorted cast of road-killed rabbits, raccoons, skunks and the occasional unlucky farm dog is a bony-shelled critter seldom before seen in these parts.

The armadillo invasion has begun.

Wildlife experts say armadillos are scurrying away on stubby legs from their homes in the Ozarks of Arkansas. Destination: Missouri, where indications are they're finding the Show-Me State's environs to their liking.

On a recent drive from Springfield to Branson, a distance of about 40 miles, one motorist counted no fewer than half a dozen armadillos sleeping eternally along the side of the road.

The armor-plated, football-sized critters are even becoming citified. Last summer, a couple of dead 'dillos were scooped off the pavement in Springfield for the first time, said Dave Dunn, street-cleaning supervisor for the city Public Works Department.

Even more have been found crunched by Springfield cars this year.

What's going on here? Are Arkansas armadillos suddenly unhappy living in Razorback country or just experiencing a bout of wanderlust?

Actually, armadillos have been expanding their range northward since the 1980s, experts say. The relatively frequent sighting of dead armadillos on the road is evidence of that--and of the animal's susceptibility to fatal run-ins with vehicles.

Armadillos, which don't see well, can jump three or four feet in the air when startled, so if a car's wheels don't get them, the bumper probably will.

"We kind of suspect armadillos are born dead on the road," quipped Dave Pitts, a wildlife management biologist in the Missouri Department of Conservation's Springfield office.

Now a somewhat common sight in the southern tier of Missouri counties, nine-banded armadillos--whose scientific name, dasypus, means "rabbit-turtle" in Greek--have been spotted as far north as Jefferson City, Pitts said.

For several years now, wildlife officials have predicted that all it would take was a harsh winter to kill off or send the critters high-tailing it south.

"But we really haven't had cold, severe weather for several winters," Pitts said.

And the armadillo population apparently is flourishing as a result. Pitts said his office fielded 15 to 25 calls a week this summer from folks complaining that armadillos tore up lawns and flower beds with their long, sharp claws.

Because of the hot, dry summer, armadillos ventured out of the woods and into lush yards and well-watered gardens where they know they're sure to find the mainstay of their diet--worms and grubs, Pitts said.

"They're like rototillers that have run amok," said Joshua Young, a partner in an herb-growing business at Blue Eye, near the Arkansas line. "We've had them for several years but have never seen them as numerous."

Young counted 18 'dillos during a recent one-mile hike through the woods. And that was during the day, when the nocturnal animals aren't supposed to be active.

Armadillos weigh 8 to 17 pounds and measure about 30 inches long. They live in underground burrows, swim well and are a marvel of reproduction. A single fertilized armadillo egg divides into four parts, resulting in four young that are genetically identical.

Because they are a protected species in Missouri, armadillos are not legal game. Nonetheless, the conservation department will look the other way if homeowners choose to shoot the lawn pests rather than trap and release them elsewhere, Pitts said.

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