The Minnesota Zoo is well known for its 485 acre facility in Apple Valley, Minnesota. However, people may be less familiar with the amazing work the Zoo does outside of Minnesota. The Zoo’s Conservation Advisory Team and the Minnesota Zoo Foundation have been sending Zoo staff around the world for years with the Ulysses S. Seal Conservation Grant. This grant allows staff to help support conservation projects they are personally passionate about and even participate hands-on in the research, if possible. From Hyacinth macaws to endangered sea turtles, the Minnesota Zoo has sent staff to 24 different countries on 58 grant projects and is excited to continue this great extension of the conservation work being done here at the Zoo itself. Overall, the grant has provided over $365,000 of critically-needed funds to over 120 unique conservation programs in 47 countries around the world.
While it’s chilly here in the “frozen tundra” of Minnesota, it’s blazing hot down in the Brazilian Pantanal. I [Zookeeper, Mary Pederson] know this because it was around this time last year that through the Ulysses S. Seal Conservation Grant I got the chance of a lifetime to help the Giant Armadillo Project and learn first hand the hard work and dedication that goes into making a conservation effort like this successful. The Giant armadillo is the largest species of armadillo, but even with its size reaching over 100 lbs. they are rarely seen and very little is known about them. Some people believe they are extinct and many have never heard of their existence. The Giant Armadillo Project is working to change all of that. Using camera traps, radio transmitters, burrow surveys, resource monitoring and mapping, the project has established the first long-term ecological study on the Giant armadillo in the Brazilian Pantanal.
We started the day between 3:30 and 4:30am. We got up that early due to the heat. We would pack up the vehicle with water and head out to record the behavior of the female armadillos that had previously been equipped with telemetry. One of them has a baby; the information gathered from her will be the first fully documented up rearing of a baby Giant armadillo EVER! After both females had been documented, the search began to locate a new armadillo.
Giant armadillos are strictly nocturnal, however tracking them at night has proven to be difficult. They have had more success looking for fresh evidence of a Giant armadillo during the day. You would think that tracking a 4 ft. armadillo would be easy, but with the low population densities, the heat and the terrain, easy is far from the reality. The area of the Pantanal we were surveying is a mix of flat savannah and murundus, smaller mounds of forested area. The giant armadillo prefers to build their burrows in the murundu which is often covered with a thick layer caraguata, a very spiny succulent that is extremely difficult to walk through with out leaving behind pieces of clothing and/or flesh.
Five long, extremely hot days went by with no luck of finding the evidence needed to confirm the presence of a giant armadillo. Luckily, one of the days it rained, leaving a sandy canvas for Giant armadillo tracks. Following those tracks was the biggest adrenaline rush I think I have ever had! The terrain is so varied that losing the tracks is very easy, so when you find them again it’s like finding buried treasure. On the sixth day, after another long, very hot search, we spotted a fresh burrow. Upon applying the telemetry to the carapace (outer shell) of the armadillo, we knew it was a male that had not been documented before.
After the procedure, while walking back to the vehicle, another fresh giant armadillo burrow was spotted. The team figured that it was a female that they have documented in this area before, because having two males within such close proximity would have gone against all of the research they have collected about home ranges and the rare overlap of males. You can imagine the surprise when the armadillo in the burrow was a young male!
Since I was there last year, the Giant Armadillo Project team has been hard at work collecting lots of unknown information about the species it is working to protect. They also collected an abundance of new information on the rearing of baby armadillos. It was believed that young Giant armadillos disperse from their mothers at 6 weeks of age. This was an estimate based on research from other species. It has been 17 months now since the baby armadillo was born and he continues interacting and sharing his mother’s territory. Although he forages alone, he uses burrows that she digs and only recently began digging a few burrows. This new information is extremely important and demonstrates how rare, and how much care each baby Giant armadillo requires. Females, therefore, produce very few young and each animal is extremely precious. This explains why Giant armadillos have gone locally extinct in so many areas throughout their range. Too few young are born and the removal of any individual has huge consequences on the population. They have also been able to collect semen samples, something that has never been done with this species.
In 2015, the project plans on expanding their research to the Cerrado biome, while continuing to collect long term data in the pristine Pantanal. This has meant meeting with owners of intensive cattle ranching, or multinational companies of cash crops, including eucalyptus and sugar cane. At first, people are always surprised that the project wants to study there. Most have never heard of Giant armadillos. All assure the project team that Giant armadillos do not occur on their land. However, with all the great information and pictures we have from the Pantanal, they are slowly generating interest and opening new doors. As they expand to the Cerrado, they will begin working with animals living under stressful, degraded environments where the animals are often exposed to pesticides and other chemicals. A comparative study between the semen quality of males in the Pantanal and the Cerrado could be one of the indicators amongst many others that they analyze.
The information collected through this effort is being used for a diversity of education, outreach initiatives, media campaigns as these amazing animals serve as ambassadors for biodiversity conservation nationally and internationally. The experience I had learning about the amazing animals we share this planet with was life changing. It is so humbling to be reminded about the vast amounts information on this planet we still know nothing about.