Did you know that armadillos are tropical animals? They evolved from the same common ancestor as anteaters and sloths, and are made to live only in environments that are toasty-warm all year. Nature didn’t equip them with the ability to hibernate and they don’t have the warm, thick coats or body fat that most mammals need to stay warm in winter.
Nine-banded armadillos— the kind that live here in Tennessee— missed that memo. Originally from South of the Border, they migrated into the U.S. in the late 1800s to take advantage of the loss of large predators in the Southwest. From there, they’ve spread as far north as Nebraska and Illinois and have made themselves at home even in Tennessee’s coldest, most mountainous regions.
The main way that armadillos survive our winters is by digging burrows up to 15 feet long and spending most of their time in those burrows during cold weather. The burrows provide natural insulation to shield the armadillo’s nearly-naked body from the elements. To survive the season, an armadillo has to be lucky enough to have a fairly steady supply of live insects and worms in and around the burrow. Though primarily nocturnal during the warmer seasons, an armadillo has to come out on warm afternoons— however rare they might be— to seek whatever food it can find in fair weather. Otherwise, it will starve to death before spring.
You’re not likely to see an armadillo out and about this time of year, but if you do, it will usually be during an unusually warm and sunny day, and the armadillo will be hard at work trying to find some buggy snacks to stay alive for the rest of the season.
Although they are relative newcomers to our area, armadillos are still important and special little critters. They are great at eating fire ants, grubs, maggots, and other insects that can become pests if unchecked. In a month or so, our little accordion neighbors will be coming out of hiding and will be hard at work raising their young on a diet rich in pests.