Why Did The Armadillo Cross The Road Into Kansas? Climate Change

Apr 22, 2019

Drive on any major highway in Kansas and you’ll likely see some roadkill.

For decades, biologists at the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism have found a treasure trove in their counts of flattened animals. It’s a way to create a population index of raccoons and beavers.

In 1986, the scientists also started counting armadillos.

“The first year, the total number of armadillo reports, actually the first couple of years, it was two — total,” state furbearer biologist Matt Peek said.

While armadillos have been spotted in Kansas as early as the 1940s, they were rare.

That all changed in the mid-2000s. Climate change is a likely part of the explanation.

The effects of climate change appear all over the world. As average temperatures rise and droughts drag on longer in Kansas, plants, animals, and even humans are beginning to adapt.

The subtle changes let armadillos claw their way farther North and push some Kansas farmers to try alternative crops, such as cotton, to cope with the decline of available water.

Credit Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism

In a graph that tracks how many armadillos are spotted for every thousand miles driven, the number stays below 1 until about 2000. Then a sudden spike appears.

Curiously, there’s an equally dramatic drop around 2006. What happened?

“They were getting so many,” he said, “they just quit keeping track.”

Armadillos’ main source of food is bugs they find in the ground. They don’t hibernate and can only go about two weeks without eating food.

That becomes a problem in places with extended freezes and snow-covered ground, which is why finding so many in Kansas perplexes biologists.

“We just don’t know how they’re surviving these cold winters when they have such limited food,” Kansas State Extension specialist Jeri Geren said.

Part of it could be that as average temperatures rise, due in part to heat-trapping pollution released from fossil fuels, the duration of consecutive days below freezing shrinks.

Or it could be that the armored mammal just adapts better to different environments than once believed.

Armadillos aren’t the only things moving north due partly to climate change.

Cotton is, too.

David Lingle examines cotton from a bale the gin at NextGineration is about to process.
Credit Brian Grimmett

The Next Gineration cotton gin in Pratt has been running 24 hours a day, seven days a week this year. That’s because Kansas farmers grow more cotton than ever before.

David Lingle is general manager of the gin. He says the plant doesn’t normally operate this much.

As recently as 2015, cotton grew on just 16,000 acres in Kansas.

But last year, Kansas farmers planted 10 times that.

While it still pales in comparison to the nearly 7.5 million acres of wheat planted in the state, it’s seen meteoric growth.

“Business has tripled,” Lingle said. “(Next year,) we will double the capacity of this gin.”

Next Gineration is one of three cotton gins in the state. The other two have also recently upgraded or increased their capacity.

That kind of investment suggests Kansas cotton is more than a passing fad.

One reason for the newfound interest in the crop could be low grain prices.

“It’s the only thing that shows a net positive right now,” Jeremy Betzen said.

He started growing cotton a few years ago and has added acres every year since.

But other factors play into that decision. While cotton was grown in Kansas as early as the late 1860s, it’s always been on the northern edge of cotton’s growth area.

A cotton gin at NextGineration in Pratt, Kansas is almost always running lately as it tries to keep up with higher than usual demand.
Credit Brian Grimmett

To get consistently good quality and quantity you need heat. Betzen said there’s already a pretty noticeable difference in heat from the Kansas/Oklahoma border and where he farms 50 miles to the north.

But lately, climate change is making conditions more favorable. Since 1970, the average amount of time between the last spring freeze and the first fall freeze in south-central Kansas has increased by almost eight days.

Seed companies also now offer cotton varieties that can resist a pesticide commonly used in Kansas, increasing yields.

Cotton doesn’t need as much water as corn or soybeans either, making it drought tolerant and well-suited for areas with water use restrictions.

“In those cases … cotton could be a good alternative to have in a rotation because you don’t need as much water to get a crop,” said Gregg Ibendahl, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University.

Climate change models suggest periods of drought in southern Kansas will only get worse. The average number of days above 100 degrees will increase by as many as 30 to 40 by the end of the century.

That change could make winners out of both Kansas cotton farmers and armadillos.

So, whether it’s grain prices, the environment, or both, the pressure to adapt is growing.

“There’s enough people realizing if they don’t change their ways,” Betzen said, “they’re probably headed for bankruptcy.”

Brian Grimmett reports on the environment and energy for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett.

Coverage of energy and the environment is made possible in part by ITC Great Plains and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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