The Brazilian three-banded armadillo (Tolypeutes tricinctus) can roll itself into a ball so tight that only a puma's claws can penetrate its protective shell. But this evolutionary advantage hasn't done much to protect the species from humans, who have turned savannah habitats into inhospitable cattle ranches and soybean plantations. Once found throughout Brazil, the armadillos—one of 20 armadillo species that live through much of North and South America—are now restricted to several shrinking pockets of habitat. Scientists estimate that the Brazilian species's population has dropped by as much as 30 percent in the past decade.

Now, Brazil is aiming to make a conservation goal to help the species. The International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), soccer's governing body, on September 17 named the endemic armadillo its mascot for the 2014 World Cup (when the tournament will next be held). A cartoon version of the animal will be used by FIFA and the games' local organizing committee as one of the World Cup's primary branding images.

"One of the key objectives through the 2014 World Cup is to use the event as a platform to communicate the importance of the environment and ecology," FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke said in a prepared statement. "We are glad to be able to do so with the help of a mascot who I'm sure will be much-loved." FIFA has already launched a Web site for the mascot that embraces both its cuteness and its conservation status: "I set an example to others so that Brazil's natural beauty can be respected and protected for the future. My innovative defense mechanism, my diverse ancestry, my passion for football and my love of life all convey an important message: that we must take care of Brazil's majestic environment."

The Brazilian three-banded armadillo—one of just two armadillo species that can roll into a complete ball—was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in the 1990s. It now exists only in scattered locations, mostly in the eastern portion of the country. In addition to habitat loss, the species is also classified as "Vulnerable to extinction" because of subsistence hunting, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, and climate change, according to a paper published in August in Biological Conservation. The paper, by scientists from University of Brasilia and the Jaguar Conservation Fund, looked at three different climate change scenarios and found that for all of them the armadillo's arid habitats would become unsuitable by the year 2050. The authors concluded that existing protected habitats in Brazil will fail to preserve the species from climate change "under any scenario" and called for the creation of additional reserves.

In related news, the southern three-banded armadillo (T. matacus) will be the mascot for the 2014 "Sport Your Trainers" campaign, where people in Scotland will pledge to wear sneakers ("trainers") in support of that year's Commonwealth Games. That mascot won't be a cartoon, though: a real armadillo named Dillon, a resident of the Edinburgh Zoo, will fill the role.

Of course it's hard to say if making an endangered species the mascot for a sporting event does any good for conserving that species, but a little extra awareness can never hurt.

Photos: Mascot via FIFA. Armadillo by Chris Stubbs via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license