Diggers in the Dark: Discovering Giant Armadillos in Brazil’s Pantanal

Text and Photographs by Kevin Schafer, Fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers

The first thing this adult female does when leaving the safety of the burrow is to check the area for threats.

It is an axiom of conservation that to protect a species, we need to know something about it. Although it is tempting, in this age of global data, to believe that we know all there is to know about the animals with which we share this planet, nothing could be further from the truth. New species are still being discovered, and there remain thousands more that few people have ever heard of, or about which next to nothing is known. Among these is the Giant Armadillo of South America.

At up to five feet long, it is the largest of its tribe, yet remains one of the least-known, most-mysterious large mammals in the world. Why all the mystery?  Because Giant Armadillos, despite their size, are masters of invisibility; profoundly nocturnal, they spend 2/3 of their life underground, emerging only well after dark to forage on termites and ants. They are rarely seen, even by people who live in close proximity to them. In fact, the only real sign of their existence is often the presence of large, unexplained holes in the ground.

Over the past 20 years, I have traveled in many parts of South America where Giants were thought to live, but had never seen one, nor talked to anyone who had. I asked about them with every guide I met, but my questions were always met with shaken heads or blank stares. I wanted to see one – badly. So when I recently saw a picture online of a wild Giant Armadillo, taken at night with a camera trap, it didn’t just get my attention, it took my breath away.

It was a photograph like this that first took me to Brazil, among the first ever taken of a wild Giant Armadillo.
It was a photograph like this that first took me to Brazil, among the first ever taken of a wild Giant Armadillo.

That photograph, taken in Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands by Dr. Arnaud Desbiez, was stunning, Here was an animal, almost legendary in its rarity, captured out in the open: wild and carefree. To put this in context, up until now there have been no more than a handful of pictures ever taken of the Giant Armadillo in the wild. What’s more, observations are extremely rare, and almost no reliable scientific information about them exists. Virtually nothing is known about their breeding ecology, their diet, their territorial requirements – or even how many, or how widespread, they are. Although published range maps suggest that Giant Armadillos are widespread across South America, those maps are littered with question marks and guesswork.

The project’s camera traps have revealed many things for the first time, including this baby Giant Armadillo, emerging from the den.
The project’s camera traps have revealed many things for the first time, including this baby Giant Armadillo, emerging from the den.

Simply said, we know next to nothing about one of the largest mammals on the continent. Dr. Desbiez and his colleagues, veterinarian Danilo Kluyber and biologist Gabriel Massocato, are working to change all that. They are now in their third year of a pioneering long-term study of these animals, the first ever undertaken. Their effort, The Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project, is centered on the private Baia das Pedras ranch, owned by Doio and Rita Coelho Lima, who have been active supporters of the research since the beginning. (Rita, herself, grew up on the ranch, but until the Project began in 2011, had never seen a Giant Armadillo.)

A young male Giant Armadillo climbs out of its burrow well after dark to begin a night of foraging.
A young male Giant Armadillo climbs out of its burrow well after dark to begin a night of foraging.

Last year, I contacted Dr. Desbiez and asked if I could join him and his team in the field, to try and get some high-resolution pictures of these armored phantoms. Over the course of several weeks, we set up cameras at known den sites, hoping to get the animals emerging after dark.  We had to be careful; despite their imposing size, these animals are extremely sensitive to disturbance. A careless noise, or even the lingering scent on a piece of equipment, is often enough to send them scurrying back into their burrows, sometimes for the rest of the night.

Giant Armadillos are digging machines, capable of burying themselves completely in under a minute.
Giant Armadillos are digging machines, capable of burying themselves completely in under a minute.

Then there were the vagaries of armadillo behavior: set up the cameras in the wrong path and either the animals would go a different way – or else walk directly on top of a lot of expensive gear, crushing it into the sand. Sometimes, they left instantly, resulting in just a single frame. But on a good night, they would linger for a few minutes, taking a dozen or more images of themselves before moving off to forage.

In the end, we managed to get some of the first high-resolution portraits of these astonishing animals ever taken. However, in nearly three weeks of work, I only saw one armadillo, and then only for a fraction of a second, unexpectedly running across the road ahead of us. Full disclosure: I was too surprised – and unprepared ­– to take a picture.

Under a sky filled with stars, Dr. Arnaud Desbiez tried to locate a Giant Armadillo.
Under a sky filled with stars, Dr. Arnaud Desbiez tried to locate a Giant Armadillo.

The Project’s research, meanwhile, is opening a window into the hidden world of these little-known animals. Direct observation is almost impossible with Giant Armadillos, largely due to their extreme sensitivity to disturbance, so Desbiez’s team is utilizing a broad network of camera traps, and fitting captured animals with GPS tags to monitor their movements. These tools have allowed the team to document never-before-seen events that include the appearance of babies.

One of the most intriguing discoveries made so far has been the unique role these animals as “ecosystem engineers.” Giant Armadillos are master excavators, tunneling into the ground with relentless and determined efficiency. This is essential, since they dig new burrows nearly every night. This excavatory prowess leaves the landscape riddled with large holes which, in turn, are utilized by as many as 24 other animal species as resting places, refuges, and even potential denning sites.

 Giant Armadillos have poor eyesight and see the world largely through scent. Here, one checks the air around the den before heading off for the night.
Giant Armadillos have poor eyesight and see the world largely through scent. Here, one checks the air around the den before heading off for the night.

The Giant Armadillo project is also branching out to gather data on smaller, related species, including the Nine and Six-banded Armadillos, and another animal I had never known existed: the Southern Naked-tailed Armadillo. Together, this research hopes to understand and draw attention to armadillos in general. Information gathered in the years to come may make all the difference in protecting this little-studied group of animals.

A Giant Armadillo investigates a termite mound. No pictures of active feeding have ever been taken.
A Giant Armadillo investigates a termite mound. No pictures of active feeding have ever been taken.

Kevin Schafer is a founding Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, and one of the originators of their flagship Photographic Expeditions. His primary focus is on documenting little-known and endangered species worldwide, including Amazon River Dolphins for National Geographic Magazine. His pictures of the Giant Armadillo currently appear in National Geographic’s Brazil edition.

For more information on the Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project, visit: http://giantarmadillo.org.br

Changing Planet

The mission of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) is to further environmental and cultural conservation through photography. iLCP is a Fellowship of more than 100 photographers from all around the globe. As a project based organization, iLCP coordinates Conservation Photography Expeditions to get world-renowned photographers in the field teamed with scientists, writers, videographers and conservation groups to gather visual assets that are used to create conservation communications campaigns to foment conservation successes. iLCP is a 501 (c) (3) organization. Support our work at this link.