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Pink armadillos ain’t your Texas critters

DIGGING DIRT  Pink fairy armadillos have claws so specialized for digging that they struggle to walk on hard surfaces.

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Here’s an Internet bizarrity that you can believe in: the pink fairy armadillo.

It’s a real animal, the smallest armadillo species in the world. At about 100 grams, it would fit in your hands. It’s covered with “very fine, silky white hair,” says Mariella Superina of the CONICET research center in Mendoza, Argentina. And its hard outer covering, rich in blood vessels, can blush pink.

Full details of Chlamyphorus truncatus biology, though, might as well be a fairy tale. It’s known only from a dry, sandy swath of Argentina and spends most of its time underground. The pink fairy is so hard to spot that Superina and her colleagues are struggling to determine whether it’s endangered or not. She heads an international group of specialists now trying to assess the risk of extinction for the world’s 21 known armadillo species, plus their close relatives, the sloths and anteaters.

In 10 years of field work, she has never caught sight of the pink species in the wild. She has seen tracks made by digging claws and the diamond-shaped tip of its tail. After several meters, the tracks just stop where, she presumes, the armadillo disappeared underground. Locals, she says, “can track down any animal — except the pink fairy armadillo.” Occasionally someone captures one and soon panics about keeping it alive. These rare captives, she reports, usually live no more than about eight days.

Superina struggled to care for one such stray that couldn’t be returned to the wild. In 2011, she published a Zoo Biology paper largely about what it wouldn’t eat. In desperation, she discovered that it would slurp up a goop (consisting of milk, cat food and exactly half a banana) that had been mixed for a different species. The next stray fairy, though, wouldn’t touch the stuff. (Don’t even think of getting one as a pet, she says.)

During the eight months the goop-tolerant fairy lived in Superina’s home terrarium, infrared cameras recorded it moving below the sand surface. Biologists had thought the species “swims” through sand. No, Superina now says. “It was very funny — it digs and then it backs up and compacts the sand with its butt plate.” The video shows a pale, furry body digging and butting, digging and butting. The flattened round rear plate used in compaction is unique to fairy armadillos.

This rare glimpse may have solved a paleontological mystery, too: Previously found rows of compacted earth discs that look like slumping sliced bread may actually be the work of ancient fairy armadillos’ butt plates.

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