Armadillos

What I see has to be science fiction straight out of an artist's imagination. "I'll draw a creature born with armor," says the artist. "That's cool. Long snout, small mouth, bumpy tongue covered with sticky saliva. Tapering tail with ever decreasing armor rings. More detail - hair sticking out between the chinks in the carapace and below it. What else? Aha! Long, sharp claws!" The artist draws it springing into the air, claws spread.

But the creature I'm approaching is real, a living work of nature's art, and it's no threat to me, though it might jump three or four feet straight up if startled. The size of an extra-large house cat, it's oblivious to my presence. All it wants to do with those claws is dig for the insects its sensitive, snuffling nose detects underground.

This timid mammal in search of food at the Drury-Mincy Conservation Area in Taney County is Dasypus novemcinctus, the nine-banded armadillo, a k a the common long-nosed armadillo. Novemcinctus refers to the nine narrow plates that allow flexibility in its midsection.

Since 1980, the nine-banded armadillo has made itself at home in Missouri, moving northward to and even across the Missouri River, according to a 1994 report by Kimberley Lippert Mackey and Paul T. Schell, then graduate students at Southwest Missouri State University, Springfield. Survey respondents in areas around Cassville, Roaring River State Park and West Plains reported the most sightings. (Conservationist readers participated in the survey.)

Armadillo, meaning "little armored one," was the name the Spanish gave shell-wearing mammals they encountered in the New World. Armadillos exist only in the Americas, with South America home to all 20 species. Two of those, the nine-banded and the northern naked-tail armadillo, also live in Central America and Mexico.

Only the nine-banded migrated into this country. First recorded in Texas in 1849, it expanded its range north and east, at times aided by pranksters and animal dealers. In Florida, releases from a zoo in 1924 and a circus truck in 1936 started another migrating population. Now the northern edge of armadillo territory runs through Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Though this expansion has taken almost 150 years, that's fast for a mammal.

It isn't