Pink Fairy Hunt

No, it’s not a Japanese cartoon character. The pink fairy armadillo may look like a fantasy creature–think half-mole, half-lobster–but it’s a real, albeit hard-to-spot animal. But the world’s smallest armadillo seems to be holding on in its home territory, according to a new survey, although it also faces big threats.

The pink fairy armadillo (Chlamyphorus truncatus), or pichiciego, rarely pops up for people. The animals, which have a downy-haired torso and a back covered in thick scales, are nocturnal. Like moles, they are also burrowing fiends, digging deep below dunes and dry brush-land in Central Argentina. While many scientists assume that the armadillos’ numbers have dipped in recent decades, there’s been little data to back that theory.

To discover how well the creatures have fared, a team led by Carlos Borghi of Argentina’s National University of San Juan took on an extensive survey. The researchers asked around, interviewing Argentineans that claimed to have spotted one of these odd animals. The team turned to trained biologists, but also farm workers, or puesteros, and even school kids.

Despite the wide net that Borghi and colleagues cast, sightings remained rare. Since 1994, the researchers confirmed only 32 human encounters with the armadillos. But rarity doesn’t necessarily mean the species’ numbers are plummeting. Based on a comparison with a 1929 survey, the armadillos still occupy much of their home territory, a narrow sliver of land just east of the Chilean border, the group reports in Edentata.

Still, Borgi and his team argue, the armadillos aren’t in the clear. Olive orchards and other human developments have spread across Argentina’s dry regions in recent decades, especially toward the north and west of the pichiego’s home turf. “Ultimately, the conservation of the pink fairy armadillo will depend on the persistence of arid and semiarid habitats where the species occurs,” the group writes. Crop trees cover over the armadillo’s homes, they note, and farming may also be spilling pesticides into the wild — bad news for the sensitive critter. Daniel Strain | February 20, 2012

Source: Borghi CE et al. (2011) Updated distribution of the pink fairy armadillo Chlamyphorus truncatus (Xenarthra, Dasypodidae), the world’s smallest armadillo. Edentata, 12.

Image Wikimedia/Brehms Tierleben