A study of 12,000-year old fossils recovered from Argentina revealed that a group of now extinct glyptodonts were actually armadillos. The monstrous creature with spiky, club-shaped tails roamed South America for millions of years. It vanished along with many other animals at the end of the last Ice Age. Doedicurus, a plant-eating glyptodont, measured up to 4 meters in length and weighed between 1 ton and 2 tons.
Glyptodonts a subfamily of armadillos
Findings of the study were published in the journal Current Biology. “It certainly looks like a small car, like a Mini or Fiat 500,” said evolutionary biologist and lead author Frederic Delsuc of the Montpellier University in France. Doedicurus shared the landscape with sabre-toothed cats, huge ground sloths, and flightless “terror birds.” Their physical attributes such as the impenetrable shell indicated that they could be likely cousins of armadillos.
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Now a study of small DNA fragments extracted from bits of the creature’s carapace confirmed that glyptodonts are a “subfamily of gigantic armadillos.” Scientists used a sophisticated technique to identify mitochondrial DNA of the ancient target species from a soup of environmental contaminants that had permeated into the fossil over time. Researchers believe these fearsome beasts got increasingly bigger over time before going extinct at the end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago.
Glyptodonts originated 35 million years ago
Dr. Delsuc said he had also resolved the position of the glyptodonts in the tree of life. They fall in the “cingulata” order, one of the several branches of armadillos. Glyptodonts represent an extinct lineage that originated 35 million years ago, well within the armadillo radiation. Taxonomically, they are just another subfamily of armadillos, which scientists called Glyptodontinae.
Researchers found the closest relatives of glyptodonts include not only the giant Priodontes maximus but also the four-ounce pink fairy armadillo or pichiciego Chlamyphorus truncatus. Glyptodont fossils were collected by the likes of Charles Darwin in the early 19th century. But few could conclude what mammals they represented.