'Extinct' armadillo comes out of its shell


Brazilian biologists have launched a programme to save the three-banded armadillo, a species rediscovered last year after 20 years without a single sighting. Biologists at the Biodiversitas foundation, a conservation organisation based in Belo Horizonte, now plan to breed the animal in captivity. The three-banded armadillo is unique to Caatinga, the semiarid landscape of northeastern Brazil which is subject to long droughts. A poor digger, it is one of two species of armadillo able to roll itself up into a ball when threatened. Ilmar Santos, a researcher from the foundation, said the armadillo had become a victim of its inability to dig. ‘Rolling itself up was probably effective against natural predators but not against humans,’ he said. The animal was rediscovered in the state of Bahia by fieldworkers searching for another endangered species, Lear’s macaw. The researchers found burned armadillo shells and, later, five adult animals on sale at a local market. They took these to Minas Gerais federal university in Belo Horizonte. Three died but two females have survived for more than a year on a diet of fruit, mealworms and boiled eggs. No one has any idea how many of the armadillos are left in the wild. Surveys over the past year have found only traces but not live animals. Santos said the three-banded armadillo, along with other species of armadillo, is hunted for its meat, which is said to taste like chicken. Living standards in the area are among the lowest in Brazil and the armadillos, which are usually cooked in their shells, provide a rare source of protein. ‘The population has no alternative,’ Santos said. Having rediscovered the species, and assuming more can be found, the foundation is now drawing up a programme to save it from extinction. With more information on diet and reproduction, the foundation can begin a programme of captive breeding. ‘This may provide a viable method in improving the conservation status of the species,
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