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The potholes in Helen Heckman's back yard and garden point to an armored invader the Pennsylvanian retiree didn't expect when she moved to Sun City Hilton Head two years ago. 'But they are here -- armadillos. 'One lay dead last week on Bluffton's Buck Island Road, signaling quite a step for the nation's only shelled mammal. The Texan species has gained a foothold in the Lowcountry. 'Since the 1840s, the nine-banded armadillo has stretched its range from southern Texas, west to Arizona, north to Tennessee, and east to South Carolina, said Richard Truman, a microbiologist with the U.S. Public Health Service in Louisiana. 'Tom Swayngham, a biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said this state's first armadillo was documented in Hampton County in 1986. 'Since that time, the creature slowly has expanded its range throughout Beaufort, Hampton and Jasper counties, and Swayngham predicts armadillos eventually will populate the entire South Carolina coastal plain. 'But tracing the nocturnal beast is difficult, he said, because documenting its presence often relies on "road kill and complaints about them digging up folks' gardens." 'Heckman would be one of "those folks." Her garden is being pockmarked as armadillos claw for the grubs that may be found between the roots of her snapdragons. 'They even dug a 3-foot hole in the lawn next to her house, she said. 'Heckman said she's tried mothballs, insecticide, and commercial burrowing-animal repellents to dissuade the creatures. '"Next I'm going to try cayenne pepper," she said. "It can get expensive trying to keep armadillos out of your yard." 'Kim Washok, vice president of science at the Coastal Discovery Museum, said the armadillos have a propensity to dig at plant's root systems because that is where the grubs, beetles and worms that armadillos eat live. 'In fact, Washok said, the sandy soil of the area may help armadillos thrive because of the ease with which they can dig through it. This soil contrasts sharply with the arid soil of the Southwest, which is native to the animal. 'Armadillos started expanding out of Texas early in the 20th century, Truman said. This move was assisted by the escape of some armadillos in south Florida some time in the 1920s. 'There is no real consensus about where these animal's came from. Truman said they came from a private zoo. Henry Cabbage, a spokesman with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said they came from a carnival, and Paul Robertson, a nongame biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife, said people brought the animals into the state from Texas. 'However the animals arrived, all parties agree they quickly began spreading north. 'At the same time, the Texas population continued to expand its range. 'Truman said part of the reason the animals range expanded is that around the same time, human consumption of the animals decreased, as did populations of large carnivores that could eat the animals. 'Duane Schlitter, curator of the Texas Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said over the same period, the southern United States entered an extended warming period that staved off nights of hard frost. 'These temperatures allowed the animal's range to expand, because not only could the cold-sensitive armadillos survive, their insect food also could thrive. 'But, Schlitter said, Lowcountry residents may someday delight at the arrival of the armadillo suggesting the flesh of the animals could become an addition to Frogmore stew. '"Some guys in Texas have started marketing armadillo sausage," he said. "And really, it is very good." 'Staff writer David Jakubiak can be reached at 706-8142 or email@example.com.