Conserving the endangered Brazilian armadillo

Data and patterns lurking in existing literature on other topics entirely can be a useful guide to saving little-understood species...
30 September 2023

Interview with 

Anderson Feijo, Beijing Chinese Academy of Science


Lumberjacks cutting down trees in a forest


Conservationists rightly argue that we can’t preserve and aid the recovery of species that we don’t understand. But if time is not on our side, which it often isn’t, we may not be able to learn enough before it’s too late. So can we short-circuit the process? Well, Anderson Feijo, based at the Institute of Zoology at Beijing's Chinese Academy of Science, thinks so. Speaking to Chris Smith, he’s come up with a way to use what we do know about a rare species - in this case an endangered Brazilian armadillo - to spot patterns that can be used to identify other relevant literature and studies on other species that nevertheless provide insights into how the target species behaves and where else it might be found. It means they’ve been able to find more populations of these animals, and spot some of the key factors that seem critical for their survival, or hasten their demise…

Anderson - We use as a subject one of the most threatened species of armadillo in the world. And the only armadillo that is endemic to Brazil, only found in Brazil. This species is very, very rare and can only be found in specific kinds of habitat in the Northeast in Brazil. And because of that, there is very few data about these species; but we do know that is highly threatened, with about 70% of the population already gone. So we do need to find ways to prioritise the research, the conservation, in key areas for the species conservation.

Chris - People often say that you can't possibly hope to conserve something if you don't understand it. So I guess part and parcel of this work is understanding a rare species, and a poorly-studied species, so you can understand why the population has dropped so dramatically and therefore how to prop it up and make sure we don't lose the remaining 30%?

Anderson - Absolutely. At this moment we know so little about the biology of this species, but we also know that if you are waiting to get all the information we need, by the time we got this, the situation might be too critical for the species. We basically only know where the animal has been found. So the information about the biology of the species, what they eat, what specific habitat they can live in, or sleep or reproduction, we basically know nothing about this species, but we do have where this piece has been found. So we use those points that this species has been found and different geographical ranges of the species and combine a different set of methods to identify other potential areas that could find the species based on similarity of the climate, the habitat, the vegetation, where the species are currently present. We also use land cover information that is the information about the habitat. If the area the species was found is a farm, or is savannah, is a forest, what kind of habitat those individuals were found. So with that very simple information, we are able to explore different methods available nowadays to give us a better understanding of the overall requirements that species need to survive.

Chris - That's quite clever. So basically by knowing where they tend to be and where they've disappeared from and asking what do we know about those areas already, you can make inferences about what's probably important to this understudied species?

Anderson - Precisely. We did have information of the previous locality where the species were found, but nowadays are considered extinct and we did have information about where the species is currently present. So we were able to detect that all the recent populations are mainly found in areas that still has natural vegetation. While those populations that went extinct are mainly found in areas that now is covered by farms or cities that has grown in the last 35 years. So that was actually a very important study and result because it allow us to emphasise that natural areas for these particular species is critical for this survival. If we lose the remaining natural area, is probably that we are gonna lose this species altogether.

Chris - What was the volume of data like was there a lot to work with when you're making these sorts of inferences based on work that other people have done on other animals and other environments which you can then apply to the armadillo? Was the data of a good enough quality and was there enough of it?

Anderson - Yeah, we spent a quite good time to gather as much as data as we could. Part of the idea of this project was also to revisit some of the areas we knew the species were also found, but has been long time now recorded. So we contacted several researchers that work in the same area the species were also found, and start to ask if they were able to find these species, because in areas where the species are there, actually it's not very hard to find it. Because of that we are able to find more than 20 new populations of these species, which was a very important increase from the previous data that report only 11 remaining populations. So we now know that there is about 30 populations of these species across its distribution range. And with this more refining data, we then were able to run all of these new analysis with more confidence.

Chris - And I suppose this is really valuable because it now can be used to highlight to policy makers, politicians, and conservationists. These are the areas where we really need to preserve this environment because it's not just this animal, this environment supports that animal, but it will also support all these other animals that we know also go along with that environment. So it kind of, it gives you a much stronger argument, doesn't it, when you're trying to convince people to alter policy?

Anderson - Definitely. And we use actually this argument in your own article because we show that those areas, the species are still present, are also populated by other endangered species like the jaguar, the giant anteater, giant armadillo, cougar. So we show that those areas has something common that are valuable for several species. So if you can protect these species, we will definitely positively affect many other species of mammals, reptiles, frogs. So that's why I believe these species can be a very good ambassador of these open areas, the savannah area we have in Brazil, because it really tells a very clear story of if you do not preserve, the species go extinct very easily.


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