Armadillos, with their shells and long snouts, are often found waddling through the Texas desert.
But over the past decade, the animals have started to migrate into Illinois — and now they’re overwhelming the southern part of the state and showing up as far north as Peoria and Springfield. Experts say the shift is partly because of wetter summers and milder winters.
According to the Chicago Tribune, a combination of factors led to armadillos migrating, including climate change, land being cleared for ranches and Native Americans being killed or forced from their homes — and no longer hunting armadillos. The animals reached a sizable population as far north as Missouri by the late 1980s.
They get to be about the size of large house cats, weighing about 12 to 17 pounds. Although the bones covering their skin give them a reptile-like appearance, they are classified as mammals.
Armadillos are not aggressive, but they can pose a disease risk because they can carry leprosy.
Agustín Jiménez, an associate professor of zoology at Southern Illinois University, said armadillos have been walking across the U.S. toward areas similar to their habitats in South America, where they originated.
“In southern Illinois, they are essentially everywhere,” he recently told WBEZ’s Reset. “They like [temperate and warm] habitats, especially because they will find a lot of insects, especially larvae, that they can feed upon.”
Rivers and streams tend to be armadillos’ main way of moving about because those areas are often richer in insects, Jiménez said.
Some may find the critters cute, but there are also concerns.
The animals like to burrow into the ground, which can damage yards or crops.
“[Armadillos] seek liquidity and then they are trying to reach those insects that they are going to feed upon,” Jiménez said. “Some areas that we have seen that have great abundance of insects are going to be flowerbeds and then, in some instances, manicured grass. They dig into it and then that captures some of these confrontations between landowners and armadillos.”
Beyond material damage, some people may be concerned because the armadillos can carry and transmit leprosy. In humans, leprosy causes lumps and discoloration of skin. Severe cases can lead to deformities and disfigurement, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, experts say it’s unlikely that people will catch leprosy. Up to 95% of the population is genetically unsusceptible to contracting leprosy, the disease is highly treatable and it’s not very contagious, according to the National Library of Medicine.
And not all armadillos carry the disease, Jiménez said.
“Not all of their materials are going to carry the pathogens for contracting the disease,” he said, though Jiménez still recommended avoiding interacting with armadillos to be on the safe side.
He also suggested watching out for the animals while driving, as they have poor vision and will not react in time to a vehicle coming toward them.
For now, armadillos haven’t been spotted in the Chicago area, but don’t be surprised if they eventually make it there — they’ve already been spotted in Wisconsin.
If you spot an armadillo in the state, contact Jiménez or the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Bianca Cseke is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow her @biancacseke1.