How the Enchanting, Elusive Pink Fairy Armadillo Turned One Scientist’s Obsession

Letitia Denham

Within the arid desert of Argentina’s Mendoza Province, Mariella Superina waits patiently for a unbelievable creature to emerge from its lair beneath the sands. Her quarry, the pink fairy armadillo (Chlamyphorus truncatus), appears prefer it may have scurried straight out of the illuminated pages of a medieval bestiary. The animal’s shell, paws, and tail are a vibrant bubblegum pink that contrasts with its silky, milk-white fur and black eyes. Concerning the dimension of a hamster—a mere six inches from head to tail and weighing only a quarter of a pound—it’s the smallest of all armadillo species. It’s discovered solely in Argentina, in a broad swathe of sunbaked scrubland that stretches from the foothills of the Andes to the coastal province of Buenos Aires. And that’s about all we all know of those wondrous animals. “They’re a complete enigma… We don’t even know if they’re frequent or uncommon,” says Superina.

The truth is, some individuals doubt whether or not they’re even actual. “The primary query that hits on Google is, ‘Do pink fairy armadillos exist?’” says evolutionary biologist Simon Watts, creator of We Can’t All Be Pandas (Ugly Animal Preservation Society). “‘Pink fairy armadillo’ does frankly sound fictitious.”

Watts, whose podcasts and television reveals champion the much less charismatic members of the animal world, doesn’t depend the pink fairy armadillo as one in all his unsung uglies—between its cotton sweet colours and curious title, he says, “individuals are usually fascinated after they hear of them.”

Instantaneous fascination was definitely Superina’s response the primary time she noticed one of many tiny mammals. “I used to be speechless,” she says. “At that second I knew I wished to study all the pieces I may about it. It grew to become an obsession.”

Initially from Switzerland, Superina started learning armadillos in western Argentina 25 years in the past. As we speak, she leads a global workforce that displays international populations of anteaters, sloths, and armadillos however, due to her pink fairy armadillo obsession, she has additionally grow to be the main professional on the diminutive and enigmatic animal. She even hosted a dwell pink fairy armadillo—which turned out to be an actual diva—in her lounge within the title of science.

How the Enchanting, Elusive Pink Fairy Armadillo Turned One Scientist’s Obsession
An undated illustration of pink fairy armadillos by Friedrich Specht, which was later printed within the German reference e book Brehms Tierleben (Brehm’s Lives of Animals). Public Area/Wikimedia

Learning the animal in its pure habitat, nonetheless, has eluded her—and everybody else. For hundreds of years the armadillo has evaded probably the most decided scientists; even Charles Darwin failed to gather a specimen throughout his go to to Argentina. The pink fairy stays as mysterious as its title suggests due to its subterranean life-style, the results of adaptation to a altering surroundings tens of millions of years in the past.

That’s when international local weather patterns shifted, remodeling the Andean foothills from grasslands into semi-arid deserts. As its habitat grew to become much less hospitable, the pink fairy’s ancestor retreated from the floor, evolving right into a burrowing, or fossorial, animal. “Burrowing habits have a tendency to seem when habitats grow to be open, going from tree cowl to grasslands or deserts, or after they get actually sizzling,” stated the College of Oregon’s Samantha Hopkins, who research small mammal evolution, in an e mail.

Underground, within the absence of predators, a lot of the pink fairy’s shell softened, shedding its defensive operate. It serves as an alternative as an air con system: In sizzling climate, the armadillo flushes its shell with blood, radiating warmth and cooling down its core physique temperature. Utilizing its brawny foreclaws, the armadillo burrows via the sandy soil attempting to find worms and bugs. Because it digs, it makes use of its armored butt plate to compact the unfastened soil in its wake, shoring up tunnels to stop collapses.

The elusive armadillo does seem above floor, when extreme rainfall—uncommon on this desert area—floods its burrows. However the sight of a pink fairy is so uncommon that, “Octogenarians who’ve lived all of their lives in these rural areas (might have) seen this animal solely a couple of times,” says Guillermo Ferraris, a provincial ranger who works primarily in wildfire administration. “However they always remember it.”

When the pink fairy armadillo does go away its subterranean sanctuary, it encounters a bewildering and threatening world. Cities and vineyards are step by step changing what was as soon as huge scrubland. Herds of feral goats overgraze vegetation and compact the soil below their hoofs, hindering the armadillo’s potential to dig its burrows. Oil fields and asphalt roads busy with vans and vehicles bisect the desert panorama, isolating armadillos from each other.

A lucky pink fairy armadillo trots away from researchers after being released back into the wild.
A fortunate pink fairy armadillo trots away from researchers after being launched again into the wild. Guillermo Ferraris

Out of their aspect, pink fairy armadillos are extremely susceptible to dashing vehicles and predators, together with canine and cats. Typically, nonetheless, Superina will get a name: A dwell armadillo has turned up. She rushes to the scene to gather knowledge important to understanding the species. “It’s at all times a magical expertise to see a pink fairy armadillo within the flesh, up shut, however I put my awe to 1 facet as a result of we now have to work quick to keep away from inflicting any pointless stress, so we will instantly launch the animal,” she says.

On one event a number of years in the past, nonetheless, she did take one of many rescued animals house. The provincial division of pure assets had requested her assist: The concept was that, by learning the fundamental wants of an animal below her care, Superina may enhance the probabilities of efficiently rehabilitating injured armadillos, so that they may very well be launched again into the wild. Regardless of being obsessive about the armadillo, it was not a straightforward promote for Superina.

“At first, I refused as a result of these animals are very delicate and normally die inside a number of days,” she says. “However then I noticed that, for his or her conservation, we have to perceive if it’s doable to maintain them alive in captivity.”

Even now, as she recollects the occasion, she stresses that it’s not solely unlawful but additionally unethical to maintain the animals as pets. Enterprise her function as armadillo caregiver required a particular allow—and a few critical house renovation. Ferraris, Superina’s companion, constructed an enormous, sand-filled terrarium for the armadillo of their lounge, creating pure hiding locations and organising infrared cameras to document its habits. “It was fairly an expertise,” says Superina, laughing. “Our lives revolved round this pink fairy armadillo. We couldn’t go wherever as a result of we needed to be in the home each night time to take care of it, and research its habits.”

The weird houseguest was reasonably demanding. Superina introduced it a wide range of bugs and worms, however the pink fairy turned up its pale nostril at all the pieces provided. Undeterred, the scientist tried one thought after the subsequent. Lastly, 36 meticulously-prepared recipes later, the armadillo tucked right into a meal that apparently happy its gourmand tastes: a premium model of cat meals blended with finely mashed banana, and sprinkled liberally with insectivore pellets. The finicky fairy would depart its burrow to eat the meals at precisely 9 p.m. every night time.

“If solely the slightest factor was moved within the terrarium, the armadillo would begin scurrying round making this eerie, high-pitched scream till all the pieces was put again precisely in the identical place,” says Superina.

Her fussy topic, alas, lived solely eight months, however the experiment supplied precious details about learn how to take care of injured people throughout rehabilitation. Studying concerning the animal within the wild, nonetheless, stays tough.

The pink fairy is especially problematic as a result of customary area commentary strategies are of restricted use. Radio transmitters used for monitoring mammals, for instance, are normally connected by putting collars across the neck; the armadillo’s physique form makes this practically not possible. So Superina determined to make use of particular glue to lock a tiny radio transmitter to the pink fairy armadillo’s armored rear.

Conservation biologist Mariella Superina conducts fieldwork in the semi-arid scrubland of Argentina's Mendoza Province.
Conservation biologist Mariella Superina conducts fieldwork within the semi-arid scrubland of Argentina’s Mendoza Province. Guillermo Ferraris

When a farmer discovered one of many animals out and about, “We went and connected a transmitter and launched it again into the desert,” Superina says. “And off it went, wanting like a bit bumper automobile with the antennae trailing behind.” The subsequent morning they discovered the tracks within the sand and started following the sign to search for the animal—solely to find that the transmitter had fallen off whereas it was digging itself again underground. She’s now exploring different choices to trace the armadillos, together with one which depends on an animal that’s normally extra foe than buddy to the pink fairy: the canine.

Superina is working with a corporation that has efficiently educated scent detection canine in Africa to trace down one other secretive, armored insectivore: the pangolin. Superina hopes {that a} canine may very well be educated to find pink fairy armadillos so researchers can match them with improved radio transmitters.

For Superina, the seek for the pink fairy has taken on an added sense of urgency. So little is understood concerning the species that scientists can’t say whether or not it’s endangered—or how local weather change is affecting it. “We simply don’t understand how these animals are going to manage,” Superina says.

For now, she waits, with a tiny transmitter on the prepared, for the subsequent look of her obsession. Monitoring the animal underground shall be a scientific milestone, however, maybe extra importantly, says Superina, it will likely be “a small step to higher understanding this species, its wants, and what it wants from us for its conservation.”

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