Move over, opossum - the nine-banded armadillo has arrived in East Tennessee.
The armored mammals are here, they're spreading faster than expected and likely can survive anywhere in the Volunteer State -- except maybe for the highest, coldest peaks in the Smokies.
That's according to Timothy Gaudin, a biology professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, who published a study with student S. Erich Eichler confirming the existence of armadillos here -- including as high as 1,988 feet in the Cumberland Plateau.
"We were quite surprised," Gaudin said. "That's not where you would predict them to be. You typically find them along stream beds."
Nine-banded armadillos first appeared in Tennessee in the early 1980s, the researchers wrote, when they got a toehold in the far southwestern part of the state.
They had appeared at least a decade earlier in southern Georgia and Alabama and have been reported recently in North Georgia.
The Tennessee River isn't a big enough barrier to stop the Georgia armadillos from invading Tennessee, Valdosta State University biology professor Colleen McDonough said.
"The Mississippi River didn't stop them, so your river's not going to, either," she said.
Gaudin isn't sure if East Tennessee's armadillos came from the west or the south -- but they're moving faster than was predicted in 1996 by armadillo experts James Taulman and Lynn Robbins. Those researchers thought the armadillos' range would expand by an average of four miles a year, based on records and interviews with hundreds of wildlife officers.
Gaudin and Eichler found that East Tennessee's armadillos, first documented in 2007, are about 200 to 230 miles ahead of schedule.
"The main thing is how fast they're expanding," Gaudin said.
Warmer temperatures may be spurring the armadillos on, he's found. Chattanooga's mean January temperature was just under 37 degrees in the 1980s. It's risen through the 1990s and early 21st century, reaching a mean temperature in 2009 just shy of 43 degrees, Gaudin and Eichler's study states.
"If they are cold sensitive, the world is becoming more armadillo friendly," Gaudin said. "Except for maybe the very peaks of the mountains in the east, I think they may be [coming] statewide."
The spread of blackberries may be boosting armadillos, too. Between 1987 and 2007, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama have lost 1.5 million acres of farmland, and Gaudin said, "The first thing that happens to those fields when you let them go fallow is the blackberries come up."
"The shell of an armadillo is like an old, leather football helmet," Gaudin said, which lets it navigate prickly blackberry patches better than possums and raccoons.
Eichler and Gaudin collected 11 road-killed armadillos in southeastern Tennessee, including six at high elevation near Sewanee in Franklin County, one along Interstate 24 in Hamilton County near Moccasin Bend, three from Marion County and one from Rutherford County.