ALBANY, Ga. – After years in south Georgia, where they are common road kill and a nuisance to some homeowners, armadillos have spread to the chillier northern half of the state where their digging and burrowing is already generating complaints.
Scott Frazier, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources (search) wildlife biologist, said two armadillos have been confirmed this year in the Gainesville area, about 50 miles northeast of Atlanta.
"It tells me ... they're coming north somewhat and adapting to the habitat that's here," Frazier said.
The official state mammal of Texas, armadillos (search) invaded the Lone Star State from Mexico in the 1800s and they've been spreading north and east ever since. Their name means "little armored thing" in Spanish.
They don't displace other species or cause significant habitat changes, but their digging for grubs and other invertebrates can destroy a flower bed in a single night, Frazier said.
"That behavior is probably the No. 1 complaint the department would get," he said.
Julie Robbins (search), a senior DNR wildlife biologist in Albany, said her office gets nuisance complaints about armadillos, usually when they damage yards or destroy quail eggs on hunting plantations.
Cattle and humans risk injury if they step into holes dug by the south American mammal, which is related to anteaters and sloths. On the plus side, armadillos eat lots of insects, including some that are pests.
Joshua Nixon (search), a Michigan State University (search) zoologist, who has hosted an armadillo Web site since 1995 as a hobby, said he is not surprised that the burrowing mammals would spread to north Georgia, since they have already been confirmed in southern Illinois and he's received unconfirmed reports of them north of New York City and in the Pacific Northwest.
Cold weather is about the only thing that restricts their spread.
With limited fat reserves, they have to come out of their cozy burrows every couple of days for their meals, which would be impossible in extremely cold climates.
Of course, sometimes it is the armadillos themselves that become the meals.
During the Depression, when Herbert Hoover (search) was president, armadillos were known as "Hoover Hogs" by the impoverished Americans who had to eat them, instead of the "chicken in every pot" he had promised.
Some people still eat them, and the Internet is replete with recipes for such dishes as armadillo 'n rice, barbecued armadillo and armadillo fricassee.
Despite their intolerance to cold, Nixon said he's surprised at how far and quickly they've spread. There is even evidence that they might hitch rides on trains, he said.
"They're one of the few mammals that is spreading its range," Nixon said, noting that North America once had a native armadillo, known as the "beautiful armadillo," that went extinct about 50,000 years ago.
It was very similar to the contemporary nine-banded armadillo, the only species now found in North America.
"We don't know why they became extinct — probably climate changes and predators," he said. "Now they're taking back territory that was theirs originally."
The armadillo's tendency to leap when startled often means trouble on the highways. The maneuver helps the animal avoid predators, but often lands it on the grilles and undersides of cars and trucks.
Melissa Cummings, a DNR spokeswoman in Social Circle, east of Atlanta, said dead armadillos are showing up on Interstate 20 between Atlanta and Augusta, another sign of their northern migration.
"They're so common now as a roadkill object," she said.