Ever Heard of 'Possum on the Half-Shell?

I remember camping on Cumberland Island, right off the coast in southern Georgia, and getting surprised by a family of armadillos.  I was in my hammock, surrounded by thickets of saw palmetto that were only divided by leaf covered paths.  In the middle of the night, I heard a rustling in the leaves and thickets and hopped out of my hammock to see what the ruckus was (it’s important to note that Cumberland Island is home not only  to wild pigs but also wild horses.  The last thing I needed is to have a herd of horses or pigs come running through my camp with me wrapped up like a burrito in my hammock!)

I shined my flashlight back and forth, following the sound.  A rustling here, rattling of palmetto fronds there, grunting, etc. was happening all around me.  As the sounds grew louder, the critter grew with my imagination and I was convinced a family of hogs was rooting through my camp.  All of a sudden, something busted out of the bushes in front of me and ran right into me! I shrieked, turned, and ran smack dab into my hammock, which flipped me onto my back and knocked my breath right out.  As I lay on my back, gasping for air, two armadillos scurried past, brushing my pant legs, grunting impatiently and glaring at me an arrogant sideways glance as they moved off into the night!

There are about 9 species of armadillo world-wide, but only one is found in the southeast, and that is the 9-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus).  They are called the nine-banded armadillo because of the nine bony rings that encompass their body between the shoulders and hips.  Bony rings on the tail, bony scutes or plates on the head, armor on the shoulders and legs make this little guy well protected from predators.  Even with the plating, they can still be eaten by bobcats, foxes, alligators, hawks and owls.  Armadillos feed on invertebrates, some eggs, insect larvae, and even some fruit and vegetable matter, but 90% of its diet is from insects.  They root around, looking for grubs, earthworms, and other invertebrates, and will even crack open a fire ant nest and start feasting on the ants, using a long tongue and peg-like teeth (they don’t have incisors or canines).  In the spring, the female armadillo will give birth to four identical young resulting from a single egg that splits 4 ways, giving rise to cloned quadruplets.  They stay with mom the first year and the move off on their own soon after.

In many parts of the country and throughout the world, armadillos are an important food source for humans.  In northernMexicoand southernTexas, armadillos are hunted or captured for food.  In our neck of the woods, they aren’t sought out too much as food, but are often jokingly referred to as ‘possum on the half shell.  The meat is purported to be better than chicken and actually resembles rabbit in both flavor and texture.  Fricassee armadillo, anyone?

Armadillos have spread quite a bit after being accidentally introduced intoFloridaaround the 1920’s.  Scientists think that eventually, the armadillo will make it toNew Yorkand beyond, but their expansion is limited to the warmer climates due to their inability to handle extreme cold.

Armadillos can live up to 18 years, so combined with an ability to expand its range and reproductive success, armadillos are here to stay in the Lowcountry and we really have no choice but to just get along.  They are difficult to trap, deterrents are mostly ineffective, and with fluffy mulch in all of our plant beds, we are practically welcoming them to our yards with open arms.  Most of the damage done to yards is digging up the mulch and burrowing under homes, but sometimes they can tear into our lawns.  My advice?  Obviously, as a naturalist, I’m not going to recommend shooting or poisoning the armadillo, so our only recourse is to either learn to live with them or develop a taste for ‘possum on the half shell.  Bon appétit!

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