The Pink Fairy Armadillo Is as Mystifying as Its Name

By: Carrie Tatro  | 
pink fairy armadillo
The pink fairy armadillo (Chlamyphorus truncatus) is the smallest member of the armadillo family, measuring only about five to six inches (10 to 15 centimeters) in length. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

In all its bubblegum pink and white fur-trimmed eccentricity, the pink fairy armadillo looks like an imaginary little beast that might dwell solely in the illustrations of an ancient, mystical fairy tale. Or like a surreal creature that avant-garde designer Schiaparelli might have dreamed up to adorn an outlandish hat or to festoon the shoulders of a one-of-a-kind Dada coat.

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The Smallest Armadillo in the World

Pink fairy armadillos are the smallest armadillos in the entire world and perhaps the most adorable. From the order Cingulata, which includes all 20 species of armadillo, the pink fairy armadillo, or pichiciego, hails from the family Chlamyphoridae, and its species name is Chlamyphorus truncatus. About the size of a hamster, it measures from 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 centimeters) in length and can weigh up to a quarter of a pound (0.11 kilograms).

Although the pink fairy armadillo isn't an actual fairy like, say, Tinker Bell, this smallest armadillo species has proven itself to be just about as difficult to study. Turns out the solitary pink fairy armadillo lives most of its life underground and is nocturnal, making sightings in the wild so few and far between that very little is actually known about this mysterious little critter.

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In fact, anecdotal evidence shows that people in their 80s who have lived their entire lives near the pink fairy's only known habitat — the arid desert of Argentina's Mendoza Province — may have seen a pink fairy only once or twice (if ever) in their lives. And one researcher who worked for more than a dozen years in its habitat never laid eyes on one of these enigmatic fairy armadillos. Is that the very definition of elusive or what?

When Was the Pink Fairy Armadillo Discovered?

The first description and illustration of this mystifying mammal was conceived by the 19th-century American naturalist Richard Harlan (who worked in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia) in the first book about North American mammals, "Fauna Americana" in 1825.

Harlan gave the Argentinian pink fairy armadillo its generic name and its specific name, truncatus, meaning "sawed-off" — the perfect descriptor for our wee beastie, whose truncated tail and butt plate help with balance and keep its subterranean tunnels from collapsing around it.

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The animal's armored shell, called the carapace, and its paws and tail are a bright pinkish hue that contrasts with its silky white fur and tiny black eyes. It's found only in central Argentina in a large area of sun-scorched scrubland that extends from the foothills of the Andes to coastal Buenos Aires.

This burrowing armadillo prefers scattered habitats within this specific area of South America including dunes, sandy plains and grasslands — and outside of these environments it does not fare well. It is likely a generalist insectivore that eats mainly invertebrates like beetles, ants, insect eggs and larvae, worms, snails and plant material such as leaves.

pink fairy armadillo
The pink fairy armadillo is the only armadillo with a flexible dorsal shell that is almost separate from the body.
Ryan Somma/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This tiny species shows no noticeable sign of sexual dimorphism, so both the males and females present the same physical appearance. And we don't know much about its reproductive habits. It may give birth to one or two offspring in spring or early summer.

The pink fairy emerges from its underground lair only occasionally, usually after a rare desert rain that drives it above ground. So little is known about it that there is no information available about its home range or population size (some estimate perhaps only up to 100 still in existence) and density. It is thought to be exceedingly rare.

And that is pretty much all that's known about these amazing creatures. They are so evasive that scientists don't even know if they are common or as rare as we think they are.

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Even Domestic Dogs and Cats Threaten the Pink Fairy Armadillo

The pink fairy armadillo was originally listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a Near Threatened species, but is now listed as Data Deficient because there is so little information on its population status, and its biology and ecology are not well known.

Its current habitat is currently threatened by cattle and goat ranching, encroaching civilization, highways and roads. Even domestic cats and dogs may threaten the species.

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They are also sought after and sold on the black market as pets. It is extremely important to note that it is a threatened species and cannot survive as a pet. Removing a pink fairy armadillo from its natural habitat will prove fatal to this wondrous little animal. Un-fun fact: 95 percent will die within eight days of removal from their natural habitat.

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