Nick Baker’s Weird Creatures: Pink Fairy Armadillo (3/7)

Friday 26 January: 20.00–21.00
Naturalist Nick Baker continues to scour the globe for the strangest creatures on the planet. Tonight he is on the trail of an elusive armour-plated mammal that gets its name from its pale rose colour.

Nick first heard about the pink fairy armadillo as a young boy visiting London’s Natural History Museum. Now, before setting out on his quest, he returns to the museum to find out what little is known about the creature. Director of science Richard Lane tells Nick that armadillos are descendants of glyptodons, tank-like creatures that became extinct thousands of years ago. Like glyptodons, armadillos have an armour of bone but this is arranged in bands rather than the hexagon formations of the glyptodon. Another key difference is size: while glyptodons were the size of small cars, the pink fairy armadillo is just a few inches long.

The rarely seen animal is found in parts of Argentina, where it inhabits dry grasslands and sandy plains. Nick and his crew travel to Mendoza province in western Argentina in the hope of glimpsing one. In a whistle-stop off-road tour of Mendoza’s furthest reaches, they follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin, who came here on an inland leg of his Beagle voyage 172 years ago. Even locally there are few people with knowledge of pink fairy armadillos, but Mendoza resident and armadillo researcher Mariella Superina is among those who lend their expertise to Nick’s search.

Hours into their expedition, Nick and the crew have still seen no sign of any type of armadillo. When they finally spot one – the large hairy variety – it is too quick for them and disappears into a burrow. Nick begins to wonder how much luck they will have finding the even more elusive pink fairy.

But when night falls they get a proper glimpse of a mammal at last. Armed with Darwin’s diary and a thermal-imaging camera, Nick identifies some viscacha, small creatures with rabbit-like features and long tails. “These are the most charismatic little fluffy things I’ve ever seen!” he says, stepping over the piles of sticks the viscacha have diligently assembled, in keeping with their reputation as hoarders.

Once the sun is up the team take their arsenal of armadillo-finding technology and locate some hotspots where locals have reported seeing pink fairy armadillos a handful of times. When they find a dwarf armadillo – known locally as a ‘pichi’ – they begin to feel they are finally on the right track. To maximise their chances with the pink fairy they seek guidance from the Rojas family, four generations of gauchos living on an isolated farm. Grandma Rojas mentions that Nick’s target creature seems to appear more frequently after rainfall, perhaps because its insect and worm prey is more readily found then.

With natural rainfall in short supply in these parts, Nick enlists the help of the local fire department to drench the dunes. He has set up 20 simple pitfall traps – buckets buried in the ground – in the hope that a pink fairy armadillo will wander into one. As night falls, Nick and the firemen enjoy a drink around the camp fire. All they can do is wait until the next day and hope that they get lucky. But with so few sightings ever reported, could the pink fairy armadillo be the one that got away?

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