The world has 21 kinds of armadillos — almost all are South American, and every one of them is surreal.
Take the three-banded armadillo, which, unlike its 20 cousins, can actually roll into a ball. Or the screaming hairy armadillo, which gets its name because, well, it’s kind of hairy and it screams. The pink fairy is about the size of a toilet paper roll; the giant is about a yard long, including its tail.
But the most successful of all is the nine-banded armadillo, the only kind that’s established in the United States.
The nine-banded armadillos spread north into Mexico from Central America hundreds of years ago, but it wasn’t until 1849 that they were first observed north of the Rio Grande, in what was then the new state of Texas. Thirty years later, they’d colonized most of south Texas and were moving into the Hill Country and other parts of the state, where a few industrious souls began turning their carcasses into baskets, novelties and sometimes dinner. The ones that survived Texas spilled into Louisiana and southern Arkansas by the early 1920s, and even made appearances in New Mexico and southern Oklahoma.
But it took human help for the armadillos to make it to Florida. In the 1920s and ’30s, a few armadillos are believed to have made an escape from zoos or traveling circuses, although one source credits a Marine from Texas who was stationed in Florida during the first World War with bringing and releasing a pair. Once established in the Sunshine State, armadillo offspring started heading north to Georgia and South Carolina.
Sometime in the 1940s, the two armadillo populations — the ones that spread from Texas and the ones from Florida — met up in Alabama or Mississippi. There is no record of that meeting, no golden spike ceremony at Promontory Summit, but the real excitement was happening up north, where the armadillo started showing up in unexpected places.
According to The Amazing Armadillo: Geography of a Folk Critter, from the University of Texas Press, armadillos were living wild in eight states — the five along the Gulf of Mexico, plus Georgia, Arkansas and Oklahoma — at the time of the book’s publication in 1984. By then, however, they were already slipping across the Missouri border and were occasionally popping up elsewhere — though most of the time, there was a plausible explanation.
Mayer, who studied the spread of the animal through South Carolina, says it wasn’t uncommon for vacationers returning north from Florida to nab an armadillo, maybe as a pet. “About the third time the armadillo relieves itself in the car, Dad says, ‘Get rid of that thing,’ and that’s typically in South Carolina,” he says. That’s how he figures the armadillo seen wandering around a motel pool in the mid-1980s in Florence, S.C., where heavily traveled Interstates 20 and 95 meet, got there. “Obviously that was an animal that was brought up from further south,” he says.