Researchers use camera traps in a Brazilian rainforest to capture a day in the life of Alex the armadillo.
This Little Armadillo Was a Big Ambassador for His Species
Published: December 13, 2019
Onscreen: Scientists have placed thousands of camera traps all over the Pantanal region of Brazil. They're hoping to spot a giant armadillo.
Arnaud Desbiez: A camera trap is essentially a device that you can place anywhere, and when something passes in front of it, it will take a series of pictures and videos.
This the part I really want to get, so I’m going to get the motion sensor to work.
Narrator: Then, he waits.
Desbiez: So, the camera traps are, for a field biologist, what a microscope is to a microbiologist. It helps us see things that we can’t see with our own eyes.
Narrator: The camera traps caught something never before recorded on camera, a baby giant armadillo.
Desbiez: It was an incredible experience to be able to see this tiny little white shape. They have no coloring. You can tell that the shell is soft, and they’re a little bit clumsy the way they move.
Narrator: The scientists nicknamed the baby Alex.
Desbiez: All of us got extremely attached to this little giant armadillo, with whom we actually had no physical contact. Our whole relationship was through these images. Every time we came to the field, it was an exciting moment, “What is Alex going to be doing now? How has he progressed?”
Narrator: Thanks to Alex, scientists estimate that giant armadillos have just one offspring every three years. The babies nurse for a year and live with their mothers for 18 months.
Desbiez: Parental care is much, much longer than we could ever have imagined. We were able to follow time spent inside the burrow, time spent outside the burrow. And so those measures of time, now, today, help us to estimate the age of a baby giant armadillo, because we related those to the age of Alex.
Narrator: Arnaud shared Alex’s story with the public. Soon, everyone was hooked on the day to day life of this vulnerable baby armadillo.
Desbiez: I remember telling them when he predated his first termite mound. I remember when he dug his first burrows. We were almost like you would celebrate a child’s first achievements; we were doing that with Alex.
Narrator: After a few months living on his own, Alex’s story took a sad turn.
Desbiez: One day, we saw that he had entered one of his mother’s old burrows. So, we set a camera trap in front of the burrow, but he didn’t come out that night. And he didn’t come out the night after.
We saw a vulture land in front of the camera trap. I went and put my face against the burrow, and I smelled a rotting nasty smell from the burrow.
Narrator: A necropsy revealed a mortal wound in his shoulder. Only one animal in this area could inflict such damage: the puma.
News of Alex’s death hit hard. There was an outpouring of public sympathy.
Desbiez: This little armadillo had actually become quite the ambassador for, for his species. People were able to understand how vulnerable this species is, and how easy it is to locally extinct a population of giant armadillos, because any threat, whether it’s habitat loss or hunting or road kill, will have a huge impact on the species.
Produced and Directed by: Scott Harper
Digital Production: Ahmin Thronhill
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2019