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Out of place

This adult armadillo, measuring 18 inches long excluding the tail, was killed when it was hit by a car on a northwest Butler County road. Experts say armadillos may be ranging north because of the extended period of hot, dry temperatures dating back to last summer.

Marilyn Schmit entered the newspaper office as if she was on a mission.

"I've got something in the car to show you," she said.

Knowing that Schmit is a master gardener - not just a very good gardener, but also one who is trained through the University of Nebraska - I figured it was a potato that resembled Elvis or a tomato that looked like Mickey Mouse.

"Animal or vegetable?" I asked.

"Animal," she replied.

So I'm guessing hedgehog or giant possum or something strange.

She opens her van's back door. In a box she's got a dead armadillo.

I lifted the box out of the van and prepared to take a photo. He was placed on the concrete parking spot in front of the newspaper office.

Then it dawned on me that we should put the creature next to our sidewalk rack to verify its location.

But I wasn't picking this thing up.

"Oh, just grab him by the tail and move him," Schmit says, doing just that. She parks him on top of the newspaper rack for a photo. I head inside for a camera.

Before you know it, folks from neighboring businesses have gathered to see the oddity.

A customer makes her way through the crowd, and she nearly jumps to the street when she was startled by the alien looking creature. Schmit explains that the animal apparently was hit by a car along County Road 40 east of U.S. 81 in northwest Butler County.

So how did this animal come to the bluffs area south of the Platte River?

Professor Patricia Freeman, the head of the zoology laboratory at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, offered some information.

"The state of Nebraska is the northernmost range of the nine-banded armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus or the "nine-banded hairy-foot"). These strange-looking mammals with their shell of moveable bands of fused horny scales have been expanding their range for the past 2.5 million years," she wrote in an email reply.

Armadillos don't regulate their body temperature well, so they are usually found only in warmer climates.

The mild winter and extremely warm March may have something to do with this animal's survival, she said.

"The past two summers, first in Texas and now throughout the Midwest, have been hot and dry. These summers were joined by a very mild winter. As a result, it is not surprising to see them," she said.

But that doesn't mean scientists expect to see families of armadillos in Nebraska.

"Museum records have only documented expansion north by male armadillos. We do not yet have records of females, pregnant females or babies," she said. "If we did, then we would know that armadillos are breeding in the state. These males that have wandered into the state, probably along rivers courses, are the "pioneering" members of the populations to the south."

The odds are excellent that this animal wandered north on foot, but it could have stowed away on a truck or other equipment hauled north, she said.

Will we see more?

"If they establish themselves over the winters in Nebraska, they could become permanent members of the mammal community in Nebraska. However, when there is another cold winter, the expansion could easily contract to the south again," she said. "Armadillos now breed in Kansas and Missouri, but they did not earlier in the last century."

The armadillo measured around 18 inches long, larger than others spotted in recent years near Ord, York and Unadilla.

Freeman shared other armadillo facts:

They eat mostly insects but also worms, snails, small amphibians, bird eggs, berries and fruits. They have broad claws and robust limbs for digging. They always have quadruplets.

But in case you come across an armadillo and you are considering some wild game recipe, it's not a good idea.

"They are known carriers of leprosy," Freeman said.

Late Monday, Schmit had placed the animal in a freezer, and Freeman was interested in acquiring it for the Nebraska State Museum's collection of specimens.

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