Constable: Armadillos approach; gators next?
Once confined to the state of Texas in the United States, armadillos now are showing up as roadkill in southern Illinois. A tick species known as the Lone Star tick has migrated as far north as the Wisconsin border. On Monday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was spotted in Glen Ellyn. Politicians aside, what's the next species to make the pilgrimage from the Lone Star State to the Land of Lincoln? Javelinas? Scorpions? Tarantulas?
"These organisms are expanding their regions," explains F. Agustin Jiménez, an associate professor at Southern Illinois University who has written extensively about parasites and launched the armadillo study in part to get a handle on the parasites armadillos carry. Jiménez says that record-breaking temperature increases and shorter winters in recent years have made Illinois more hospitable to the tough little mammal whose name means "little armed one" in Spanish.
Unlike Cruz, the Texas Republican presidential candidate who faces stiff competition from fellow Republicans Donald Trump, Mark Rubio and John Kasich, armadillos have very few natural enemies in Illinois, except for speeding cars and trucks. Originally a mammal found only in the Southern Hemisphere, the nine-banded armadillo had made its way into Texas by the end of the 19th Century.
"By 1995, the species had become well-established in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, and had been sighted as far afield as Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina," according to the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center. "A decade later, the armadillo had become established in all of those areas and continued its migration, being sighted as far north as southern Nebraska, southern Illinois, and southern Indiana."
When he was a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska, Jiménez says he saw a handful of armadillos, all males.
"With the warmer temperatures, we don't know if they are going to continue coming north," Jiménez says. Winter can serve as a huge wall to keep out some species that would be happy in Illinois most of the year.
Even the alligators found in Texas could survive in Illinois swamps for much of the year. "But the temperatures in the winter are still too cold for them," Jiménez says.
Those venomous copperhead snakes found in Texas do summer in southern Illinois, he adds.
"Oh, yeah. We have a snake route," Jiménez says, noting the serpents frequent the Shawnee National Forest at the southern tip of Illinois. "They migrate through the swamps and bluffs. They are spectacular. They emerge from the water and go in the bluffs and feed on mice and rats and small squirrels."
But, even in southern Illinois, our winters are just too cold and long for the snakes to become permanent residents -- at least, so far.
"More than warmer temperatures, it's the shorter winters," Jiménez says, noting that Illinois residents are threatened more by little ticks and mosquitoes, which carry a host of diseases, than we'd ever be by snakes and alligators.
"Ten years ago, that (Lone Star) tick was only present in the southern end of the state in the forests," Jiménez says, mentioning a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map that shows the pest in every corner of Illinois today. "That is the thing we really need to worry about."
Warmer temperatures may be linked to massive bird deaths in Alaska. A study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says warmer water temperatures are spurring the growth of algae, including species that are toxic to animals. A fungus is threatening amphibians.
"Milder winters are going to open up more habitats," says Michael Murray, a scientist with the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Regional Center, which recently put together a "Big Climate Changes Facing Small Mammals" website. "There are reasons to be concerned."
In other words, you don't have to worry about armadillos, snakes, alligators or even political elections, when we have ticks, mosquitoes, algae and fungi on the move.