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When you think about Smoky Mountain wildlife, armadillos are probably the furthest thing from your mind! Nevertheless, these armored critters are steadily increasing their presence around Pigeon Forge, TN and the surrounding area. Scientists first spotted armadillos in East Tennessee around five years ago, and they have been closing in on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park ever since. Local reporter Jim Matheny recently covered this unusual phenomenon in a piece for WBIR News:
Rapid Expansion of Armadillos in Tennessee
Dr. Tim Gaudin of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has been studying the armadillo’s expansion in the state in recent years. Back in 2013, Gaudin and one of his students were the first researchers to document armadillos living on a plateau near Sewanee, TN. Originally, scientists thought that armadillos would avoid high elevations with cold temperatures, but the adventurous animals seemed to do just fine in Tennessee’s highlands.
Since then, armadillos have been spotted throughout Middle Tennessee and East Tennessee. According to Gaudin, armadillos “seem to be spreading more quickly then they have in the past. They’re actually accelerating their rate of expansion.”
Armadillo Sightings Around the National Park
The armadillos’ foray into Tennessee has brought them to the doorstep of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While no armadillos have been seen within the park’s boundaries, there have been a number of sightings on the perimeter of the Smokies. So far, armadillos have been found on the following roads:
- The Spur on Highway 441 in Pigeon Forge
- U.S. 129 near Deals Gap at the North Carolina state line
- Highway 321 in Wears Valley
- Highway 321 between Greenbrier and Cosby
- Highway 74 between Cherokee and Sylva, NC
A Surprisingly Good Fit for the Smokies
Although armadillos are most closely associated with desert-like environments, this isn’t actually accurate. As Dr. Gaudin explained to WBIR, “People think of them as being in some dusty desert in Texas, but they do not like dry habitats. They are almost always found within a half-mile of a body of water. In South America, they live in rainforests. They are burrowers and want wet soil that’s easy to dig and find insects.”
With 2,900 miles of streams and a multitude of bugs, the Smoky Mountains are a surprisingly attractive ecosystem for armadillos. Gaudin believes that it is only a matter of time before armadillos make their way into the borders of the national park.
Fast Facts About Armadillos
Armadillos are truly fascinating creatures! Here are a few quick facts about these unusual critters:
• Armadillos are one of the most widespread mammals in the Western Hemisphere.
• They are the only mammals that have a shell.
• Unlike a hard turtle shell, an armadillo’s shell is flexible like an old leather football helmet. Their shell is covered in scales similar to the material that makes up human fingernails.
• Armadillos mostly eat beetles but they’ve also been known to much on ants, termites, bees, and even bird eggs.
• When they give birth, armadillos have four identical quadruplets.
• An armadillo can jump 3 – 4 feet straight in the air when frightened!
Report Your Armadillo Sightings
Despite their rapid expansion, armadillos are still a relatively uncommon sight in the Smoky Mountain region. If you happen to see an armadillo in the Smokies or elsewhere in Tennessee, send a photo and the location to Dr. Gaudin at [email protected] so he can add your sighting to his database. Be sure to avoid touching any armadillos you may encounter, as they can carry diseases like leprosy.
Wildlife Viewing in the Smoky Mountains
While armadillos haven’t become commonplace in the Smokies yet, there are plenty of beautiful animals that visitors can see in the national park right now. Before your next vacation, check out our guide to spotting your favorite Smoky Mountain wildlife!