12 Utterly Bizarre Animal Sightings in Tennessee – Scorpians, Manatees & More!

the old mill district and a manatee

We've heard of some pretty bizarre animal sightings in Tennessee over the years. Some of these are more common than others (photos by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com and David Keep/iStockPhoto)

Tennessee is known for its variety of fauna. Some of the sightings on the list are surprisingly common, others are nothing more than escaped pets.

I have lived in the Deep South and also spent a lot of time cruising around the Gulf in Florida for much of my life. Therefore, I’ve seen my share of strange or exotic creatures. But when I come home to Tennessee, I don’t expect to have them follow me home. 

Most of these animals have made their way – sometimes with a little help – into the state of Tennessee. As a result, they are considered residents of the Volunteer State even if many Volunteers are still surprised by their presence. Some animals have been spotted in Tennessee that weren’t native residents that might raise an eyebrow or two.

With time, animals traditionally thought of as living in Southern Tennessee like armadillos and alligators have made their way into the Volunteer State. In this article, we will discuss species that are now making Tennessee their home and a handful of more exotic sights. 

Armadillo Standing Upright
Armadillos are increasingly seen in starting from West to East Tennessee (photo by Chase D’animulls/shutterstock.com)

1. Armadillos

Can I just say that armadillos creep me out? I’ve never seen one in East Tennessee. But when we briefly moved to South Alabama, I became acquainted with these cousins to the anteater. We lived – for a time – way out in the country, a few hundred yards from the Alabama River. After my second shift, I would come home and walk the dog late at night. I can’t count the number of times one of these guys surprised me – and Ringo, the Australian Shepherd – in the yard. One came up on the porch once and I thought I was gonna have to kick it, Pele style. But it scurried away. It’s a good thing, too. Later, there was a dead one in the yard that I had to dispose of. That armor is heavy. I’d have broken my leg punting the thing.

Anyway, over the last 30 years, the nine-banded armadillo has made its way up into Tennessee with the population spreading west to east. You’re still more likely to see them in the Southern part of the state and out West, but they’re on the move.

coypu
A coypu is a large rodent-type animal (photo by Wirestock/iStockPhoto.com)

2. Coypu

The Coypu – a large rodent also known as a Nutria – was introduced in Louisiana from South America in the 1930s. It has made its way through freshwater streams, rivers, ponds and marshes into Tennessee. They are mostly seen in the waters of West Tennessee. However, these guys who look a little like a cross between a beaver and a muskrat are also making their way east.

A fire ant mound
A fire ant mound can appear to be just a pile of sandy dirt, so do be cautious (photo by SF Grayson/TheSmokies.com)

3. Fire Ants

They’re here. Fire ants have made their way from the South and Western parts of the state through East Tennessee into Virginia and Kentucky. That’s it. We’ve lost the fire ant game. How do you tell a fire ant from a regular ant? Well, according to gardentech.com fire ants have two prominent bump-like nodes between their thorax and their abdomen. While that may be scientifically accurate, it’s unhelpful. In my experience, you discover fire ants by accidentally stepping on their nests and then doing a lot of jumping and cursing. Are fire ant bites bad? I mean not if you don’t mind a painful, burning, itching sensation that lasts up to an hour.

an open mouthed alligator
Alligators are mostly found in West Tennessee but an alligator was once retrieved from Cherokee Lake in Morristown, TN (photo by Sandi Smolker/iStockPhoto.com)

4. Alligators

We are going to differentiate here between wild gators and the smaller pet caiman that are sometimes released or escaped into the wild. They’ve found an escaped caiman in Cherokee Lake but they’ve found a three-foot gator in Norris Lake. Most of the wild gators in Tennessee are found in the Western part of the state, including a seven-foot gator recorded on video by a TWRA officer in Fayette County. The TWRA says the animals are expanding their territory into Tennessee naturally. Since 2018 confirmed sightings in Shelby, Fayette, and Hardin County have been recorded by the TWRA. In other words, the alligators are coming.

“Alligators expanding into Tennessee is just another species that we must learn to coexist with,” the TWRA says. For the record, gators are a protected species, and it is against the law to capture or kill them.

bull elk with a calf
Elk have been reintroduced to Tennessee (photo by Harry Collins/stock.adobe.com)

5. Elk

This may be the least shocking one on the list as the reintroduction of the species to Tennessee has been well-documented and publicized. Still, when I moved to this state more than 30 years ago, it didn’t have elk. Now it does. I find that kind of wild.

a killer bee up close
“Killer bees” aren’t nearly as hostile as they may sound (photo by EzumeImages/iStockPhoto.com)

6. ‘Killer’ Bees

I remember news stories 40-something years ago about the inevitable march of the killer bee across the Southern United States. It was only a matter of time until we’d go toe-to-toe with the dreaded striped killers. So we’d all better be prepared! It turns out, however, that “Killer” Bees are pretty much regular bees with a bad reputation.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture spells it out plainly “Africanized honey bees differ from European honey bees in behavior not appearance. Neither type of honey bee will indiscriminately attack humans or animals. The Hollywood image of “killer bees” is a dramatic exaggeration.”

The Eastern Cougar (Puma Concolor Couguar). This photograph was taken in 1986 before they were officially declared extinct (photo by Liz Weber/shutterstock.com)
The Eastern Cougar (Puma Concolor Couguar). This photograph was taken in 1986 before this particular cougar was officially declared extinct (photo by Liz Weber/shutterstock.com)

7. Cougars

I’ve grown up hearing people swear that cougars or mountain lions have made their way back to the mountains of East Tennessee. I’ve also grown up hearing the TWRA say it just isn’t so. Cougars – aka Panthers – disappeared from Tennessee in the early 1900s. However, every so often someone will swear they saw one back in the state. The TWRA has had – in Western and Middle Tennessee – a handful of confirmed sightings in recent years. The TWRA says these sightings could be the product of cougars’ natural tendency to travel hundreds of miles in search of new territory. But it says this range expansion or long, exploratory treks, do not equal population establishment.

Population establishment only occurs when reproducing females are documented. The TWRA says considering the vast space between locations where cougars have established population and the state of Tennessee, it would be a long time before cougars made their home here again.

The Devil Scorpion
Close-up macro image of devil scorpion (Vaejovis carolinianus) native to the Southeastern United States (stock photo)

8. Scorpions

I tend to think of arachnids as residents of the Southwest United States. But Tennessee is home to a couple of scorpion species. In fact, in the Spring, if you’re camping in the mountains, it might be a good idea to check your shoes before you put them on. These pesky arachnids like to hide up in there sometimes.

a kangaroo
Kangaroos aren’t native or wild in Tennessee, but they are, apparently, kept as pets and occasionally escape where they are usually spotted by bewildered onlookers (photo by Elena Pochesneva/iStockPhoto.com)

9. Wallaby

This past winter in Tazewell, a wallaby was spotted hopping around the campus at Lincoln Memorial University. The marsupial was eventually wrangled and returned to its owner. That’s right. While you can’t domesticate a wild raccoon in Tennessee, you can own a wallaby. Who’d have thunk it?

Snorkeler With Manatees in Crystal River, Florida
A manatee can travel a long distance, but the temperatures in Tennessee are not conducive to their survival (photo taken at Crystal River in Florida by Thierry Eidenweil/shutterstock.com)

10. Manatee

My grandparents retired to Homosassa Springs, Florida, in the 1980s. And so, I’m used to seeing the great sea cows both in the wild and at reserves designed to help injured manatees. However, I’m not used to seeing them in Tennessee. But in 2006 a manatee traveled more than 700 miles up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico to Wolf Harbor North of Memphis. That said, temperatures in Tennessee are not conducive to manatee survival. So don’t expect manatees to make their way north any time soon.

bobcat kitten
A bobcat kitten looks similar to a traditional house cat, and the colors can resemble a tiger (photo by Megan Lorenz/stock.adobe.com)

11. Bobcats

In September 2020, a Knox County Deputy reported seeing a tiger on the loose in East Knoxville A major search effort ensued. After a week though, it was determined the animal was likely a bobcat.

an emu
Emus aren’t native in Tennessee but they are commonly kept as pets and often available at local petting zoos (photo by Antonina Artemenko/iStockPhoto.com)

12. Emus

In April of 2023, all of Harriman, Tennessee was aflutter as a pet emu escaped its enclosure and went for a walkabout. Yes. It’s legal to own an emu. Again, can’t domesticate a wild baby raccoon you find. Can own an emu.

Though most of Tennessee is not considered part of the Deep South, longtime residents of the Deep South like gators, armadillos, fire ants and nutria have established a foothold in the state and are working their way north and east. Most Tennesseans haven’t seen a wild gator, yet or any of our more exotic residents but sightings are becoming more frequent.

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