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Why do Armadillos cross the road? To get to a new habitable area. Researchers say they're finding it in Missouri.

A nine-banded armadillo stands in a patch of grass. The armadillo has a black back, a brown snout, and perky brown ears. It is so small that the grass is around the same height as it.
Armadillos are also burrowers, which makes them a frequent menace in Missouri backyards.

Driving down the roads of Mid-Missouri, you are likely to see roadkill along the way - deer, raccoons and more recently armadillos.

This odd sight has led some to question why this once-rare mammal is now appearing in Mid-Missouri more often. The answer, like many things nowadays, is the changing climate.

“In recent months we’ve seen pulses of armadillos on the side of the road," says Nate Bowersock, the Furbearer Biologist at the Missouri Department of Conservation. "That potentially could be the result of: Armadillos had a really good winter and a lot of them gave birth that survived through the summer."

Nate Bowersock kneels next to a sedated black bear with a bright orange Missouri Department of Conservation. The bear's tongue just barely sticks out. Bowersock is in green cargo pants, a gray shirt and has blue latex gloves.
Courtesy of Nate Bowersock
Nate Bowersock primarily works in the woods of mid-Missouri with all things furbearing

Armadillos are a burrowing species, but they don’t hibernate. This means they can survive freezing temperatures for short periods - but if they can’t find food in the frozen ground, they’ll starve.

This has, so far, prevented a northern expansion for armadillos. But as the climate warms, there’s more of a home for them here.

“We don’t see as extreme temperature swings and over time we’ve seen annual temperatures are higher," said Bowersock. "We see fewer long cold snaps. And so with how things have been environmentally speaking, armadillos are doing fairly well with warm temperatures.”

MDC’s bow hunter observation survey uses data gathered from bow hunters to track species' habitats, and according to the survey armadillos have spread across Southern and Central Missouri and increased their numbers over time.

An interactive map showing the spread of Armadillos across Southern Missouri
Courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation
Armadillos observed by bow hunters across Missouri

Bowersock says Missouri - especially the Southern part of the state — has good conditions for armadillos.

Armadillos aren’t alone in this expansion - some animals are generalists that can survive a wide range of diets and temperatures, while others are specialists that can survive in a narrow breadth of diets and temperatures.

Zack Miller is the preserve engagement manager for the Nature Conservancy. He says it’s more than just the changing average temperature that impacts animals.

“Day-to-day kinds of changes that aren’t represented in that average temperature value," said Miller. "So that’d be like changes in precipitation when that comes, how much comes in one particular precipitation event, as well as your extremes. So like new high-temperature extremes or more frequent high temperatures or more frequent low temperatures.”

Zack Miller stands, arms folded, in front of a bridge. He has a black ball cap and a black jacket. The bridge behind him has rickety board and a few gaps along the path.
Alex Cox
Zack Miller lives near the Big Muddy National Fish And Wildlife Refuge where he crosses a rickety bridge to observe nature.

These changes in conditions can lead to what’s called a range shift. Miller said to think of ranges like a circle, and as ranges shift that circle can move in a particular direction or it can change its shape entirely - stretching or shrinking.

This can create new challenges for species that make it difficult to thrive, reproduce or colonize new areas to stay within their temperature and precipitation needs. Miller points out that range shifts can often bring animals into conflict with human habitats - agricultural land or urban areas.

Something as seemingly small as a road cutting through a forest can disrupt an animal’s movements. Michael Byrne, an assistant professor at University of Missouri’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, said one option to consider is a wildlife overpass.

“It looks like an overpass, but it’s not like a road it's just like a park going over it," said Byrne. "So animals can cross over, or in some cases they’ll build a tunnel under the road, so animals can go under the road instead of crossing over it.”

This is an example of green infrastructure, according to the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Experts agree that as the effects of climate change start to escalate, many ecological problems may start to pop up. And using techniques like green infrastructure can help us adapt to those changes and lessen the impact.

So maybe - eventually, it’ll be safer for armadillos to cross that road.

Armadillo Video - MDC.mp4

Alex Cox is a Junior in the Missouri School of Journalism. They're a reporter and producer for KBIA.
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