It was the evening of Oct. 1 when Brad Schwartz saw it.
He was at a friend's house about 7 miles southwest of Columbus. While the two were chatting outside, his friend’s dog started barking at something.
“Just caught it out of the corner of my eye,” Schwartz said about the creature.
His friend said it was a possum, but Schwartz said he was 95 percent sure it was something else. So Schwartz said he and his two kids began to investigate. They looked around and soon spotted it in the brush.
“It was definitely what I thought it was,” The Columbus man said.
It was an armadillo, he said.
The first reported sightings of the nine-banded armadillo within the United States date back to the early 1900s. It has been making its way up the countryside to colonize new lands ever since, said Nebraska Game and Parks Commission zoologist Mike Fritz.
Fritz said there have been reports of armadillos in Nebraska as far north as Bassett. As the winters are too cold for them to survive in the area, all armadillos people see in the state most likely originate from Kansas.
“They typically don’t survive our winters. Armadillos don't hibernate. They usually have to have good cover, good weather and food sources to keep their metabolism going,” Fritz said. “With climate change, global warming, milder temperatures, they’re being able to establish populations a little bit farther north.”
The shelled-mammal, well-known for its ability to curl up into a defensive ball when threatened, uses its claws for digging. It mostly eats insects, along with snails, worms, bird eggs, small amphibians, fruits and berries. The word armadillo is Spanish in origin and means "little armored one.”
In 2012, an armadillo sighting was reported in The Banner-Press of David City. The animal was found dead along County Road 40 east of U.S. Highway 81 in northwest Butler County. The incident was reported to Patricia Freeman, the head of the zoology laboratory at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Schwartz said he read the article and reached out to Freeman about his armadillo sighting. Although Freeman retired in 2015, she wrote in an email to Schwartz that she will report the incident to the museum.
“This is a very cool sighting to see these creatures alive,” Freeman wrote in her email to Schwartz that was shared with The Telegram. “They take those little steps and look really different when they move. Thanks for the sighting."
The road-killed armadillo from 2012 was donated to the University of Nebraska State Museum. The museum’s collections manager, Thomas Labedz, said the creature’s skeleton and shell are now in their reference collection. He said the museum has been given so many armadillo carcasses in recent years that officials are now more picky on which ones they will accept.
Upon seeing the armadillo, Schwartz said his friend wanted to pick it up. But Schwartz said he was cautious, and for good reason. Armadillos are the only known animals besides humans that can carry and spread leprosy-causing bacteria.
Although there should be some concern, the risk of disease transmission from armadillos to humans is low, according to national reports. Plus, leprosy is easily treatable and about 95 percent of people have a natural immunity to the disease, according to the American Leprosy Missions’s website.
Fritz said armadillos are relatively harmless. The animal can’t bite, but could potentially scratch a person if picked up.
"They really aren't dangerous,” he said. “My suggestion would be to just leave them alone."
Eric Schucht is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.