Mel Wiens was a little confused when an employee called to ask if armadillos were native to Nebraska.
"I don't think so," said the general manager of a Holdrege irrigation equipment dealer. "And he said, 'I'm looking at one.' "
Wiens thought that his employee, Toby Clayton, was mistaking an opossum for the armadillo. Still, he drove two miles east of town to be certain.
Luckily, he took his digital camera. He wound up getting snapshots as an armadillo rooted for bugs and larvae along a ditch.
"Every six to eight inches, it went down and burrowed," Wiens said.
His attempt for a face-on photo spooked the armadillo into the bushes.
The recent sighting in south-central Nebraska, about 25 miles southwest of Kearney, is confirmation the animals common to the southern United States are migrating northward, said Hugh Genoways, a natural sciences professor with the University of Nebraska State Museum.
Armadillos first showed up in extreme southern Texas in 1850 and have moved north since. They are now reproducing in central Kansas. It's not a wholesale invasion into Nebraska, however, since only a few sightings are reported yearly.
"The armadillos are clearly charging in this direction, even if it's only one or two a year," Genoways said.
The first documented state sighting was south of Arapahoe, near the Kansas border, in 1972. Since then, eight specimens have been recovered, with numerous other visual sightings.
The farthest north an armadillo body has been found was one that burrowed into a haystack in Ord, Neb., in 1986.
In the last two years, armadillos have been recovered near Peru and just west of Lincoln, after several cars on Interstate 80 had run over them.
A visual sighting was made within the last five years in northern Nebraska, near the South Dakota border.
The common perceptions that armadillos showed up in Nebraska after stowing away on cattle trucks or being brought here as pets are no longer valid.
"We're getting enough of them coming in now, clearly that's not what's happening," Genoways said.
It was once believed that Nebraska's winters were too harsh for armadillos, which wouldn't be able to find insects to eat. But they do not live on bugs alone, he said, and can survive a winter on what combines miss in the cornfields. They also can escape the worst of the cold days by burrowing into anything that will give them shelter, like a haystack.
"They are pretty hardy beasts," he said.
Their forays into Nebraska might be prompted by recent milder winters, or it could be a case of the species looking for its northern limit.
"It hasn't reached it yet, or if it has, it hasn't settled down enough for us to know," he said.
The armadillos recovered in Nebraska so far have been mostly males, but more females are expected to follow.
"We feel pretty confident ultimately we may have a viable population," Genoways said of armadillos, whose meat resembles the taste of pork.
And he, for one, can't wait.
"They're really tasty on the barbecue," Genoways said.