WILMINGTON — At first glance, the creature looked like a freakish variety of turtle waddling across the grass in a swamp-colored suit of armor.
The idea of spotting such an abnormal reptile excited Ellen Jo Kraemer even more than the 9-foot alligator that lives in a nearby lake. She ran from her window to grab the binoculars.
But when she zoomed in, she noticed its spindly legs with the long sharp claws, its spiny tail with the rings around it and its pig-like ears seldom found on a reptile.
Thats no turtle, she said to herself. Nobodys going to believe this.
The thing that shuffled into Kraemers golf course community near the Cape Fear River is a beast most commonly seen squashed on prairie highways: the nine-banded armadillo.
Slowly, these leathery mammals are inching into North Carolina, threatening the noble possum for animal youre most likely to hit with your car.
State biologists have noted them in 12 counties, mostly along the states southern border, but also in the mountains. They credit both a warmer climate and ballooning population for the armadillos northward migration. Were not talking about hundreds of sightings so far, but in another generation, you might see them statewide.
Its a scattering, said Jeff Marcus with the state Wildlife Resources Commission. They may be able to expand just like coyotes.
The general idea is that the species has been successful enough that its young need to spread out to find food. So theyre crawling here on their own.
But much like kudzu, the armadillo may be something of an interloper. According to one report from the commission, a driver in Bladen County sighted one jumping off a truck with Florida plates and palm trees as cargo.
People may be helping them along, Marcus said.
For the uninitiated, armadillos are mammals, not rodents or reptiles, and are covered by a bony shell. Theyre nocturnal. Theyre loners. Theyre diggers, rooting for grubs or insects or eggs. A few of them can roll themselves into a ball, as seen in cartoons, but for the most part, armadillos are identified by their hilarious, short-legged speed-hobbling. An agitated armadillo looks for all the world like a character on the Benny Hill show, jetting around in circles, legs moving at comically high acceleration.
So theres a chance the armadillos future in our state will be defined by nuisance, that the initial novelty of a new animal will fade once that new animal tunnels under our geraniums. Theres already been talk of an armadillo season.
But like Ellen Jo Kraemer, Im all agog. I still get excited when I see a rabbit in the yard, so the chance to spot something that looks like a wind-up dinosaur really revs my zoological engine.
I like the idea of them moving about in the night, rooting in the dirt with their pointed snouts, adding to the diversity of a state that already counts loggerhead turtles and red-cockaded woodpeckers in its wildlife portfolio.
Also, I hear they taste pretty good fried.
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