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Glyptodon facts: a giant species of armadillo the size of a car

The fossil species Glyptodon, discovered in the early 19th century, was first mistaken for Megatherium, aka the giant sloth, until its remains were compared with the bones of the modern armadillo.

After their kinship was established, Glyptodon began to be called variously – Hoplophorus, Pachypus, Schistopleuron, Chlamydotherium – until the English zoologist and paleontologist Richard Owen finally gave it a name, which has stuck with the animal – meaning “grooved or carved tooth” in Greek.

Glyptodon is a genus of extinct mammals of subfamily Glyptodontinae of family Chlamyphoridae. The family Chlamyphoridae includes 4 species of giant-sized glyptodons, which became extinct around the end of the last ice age. But their relatives can still be found today. Check out the facts about glyptodons below.

Modern relatives of Glyptodon

The analysis of mitochondrial DNA preserved in the fossil remains of a representative of the genus Doedicurus related to glyptodonts showed that they form the subfamily Glyptodontinae within the family Chlamyphoridae, represented today by the pink fairy armadillo (Chlamyphorus truncatus) and the giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus). The other armadillos, the six-bellied armadillo and the nine-banded armadillo, are more distantly related taxa.

When did Glyptodon go extinct and why

The South American glyptodon survived to early historical times and became extinct about 10,000 years ago, shortly after the last ice age, along with most of its megafaunal counterparts from around the world (such as the giant wombat Diprotodon from Australia and the giant beaver Castoroides from North America).

Having appeared several million years ago, glyptodons disappeared after the emergence of humans. To our ancestors, glyptodons and their relatives were harmless because they fed only on grass. The ancient inhabitants of the Americas successfully hunted armored giants.

While other herbivorous mammals escaped predators with peeping eyes, quick feet, or camouflage, glyptodons, armored from the tip of their tails to the top of their heads, could easily do without it. This survival strategy was quite common in nature, especially among the class of reptiles. The most famous examples are the extinct five-meter-long Meiolania turtles and the fully carapace-covered Ankylosaurs.

But the rugged armor failed to protect its owners from the insidious hunting methods of intelligent predators, such as fire.

This huge, slow-moving armadillo was probably eaten by early humans, who valued it not only for its meat, but also for its spacious carapace the size of a Volkswagen Beetle – there is evidence that early South American settlers sheltered from the snow and rain under Glyptodon carapaces!

Such is the cruel essence of nature – the weak simplify their survival at the cost of the lives of the strong. Fortunately, people are now smart enough not to repeat such mistakes. But will we be able to overcome ancient habits?

Where did glyptodon live

The fossil remains suggest that the homeland and center of speciation of the extinct glyptodons is South America. After the appearance of the Isthmus of Panama, when the continent lost its isolation, these animals were able to travel north, but no further than present-day Guatemala. The Glyptodons did not spread further north on the mainland because they preferred warmer climates.

Their habitat is generally similar to the range of modern armadillos, 19 species of which now live only in South and Central America and only one in the United States. Interestingly, the largest of them, the giant armadillo, weighs 60 kg, which is 33 times less than the weight of its “great-grandfather” glyptodon.

What did glyptodon eat

It is assumed that glyptodons lived in areas with rich vegetation – forests and savannahs. The lower jaw of the animal, where the well-developed chewing muscles were attached, was quite massive. It is possible that the glyptodon had a small proboscis, which it used to send food into the mouth. The animal’s diet consisted not only of grass and soft vegetation, but also of rather tough and fibrous plants.

Glyptodon protection: head, tail, shell

Armadillos-gliptodons resembled turtles in appearance. Except they couldn’t retract their heads. The glyptodon’s entire body was encased in three pieces of armor: a helmet that protected his head from harm, a sheath for his tail, and a robust carapace over his entire body. Each part of the armor of a living tank consisted of hundreds of plates – osteoderms. In fact, the armor was ossified skin.

In four species of glyptodon osteoderms fused to form a single dome, which made the animals look like giant tortoises. Such a shell consisted of about a thousand osteoderms and was 2.5 cm thick.

The head was protected by a large separate plate like a helmet.

And all along its length, the short tail was unified by bone rings with small spikes. But even this is not the limit: another huge extinct armadillo, the dedicurus, had a tail ending in a thickening with spikes, resembling a cube, a truly powerful weapon.

It is not known exactly whether the animals lived in herds or singly. Glyptodons had practically no natural enemies. But some enterprising meat-eater might have figured out a way to flip the Glyptodon on its back and gnaw into its soft belly. To do this, one would have had to try very hard, which, in principle, megateria could do from time to time. However, it is likely that if predators attacked glyptodons, they would probably choose the cubs, trying to bite the still relatively soft skull. Adults could use the tail as a defensive tool – it was quite heavy, and a blow struck could not only wound but also kill the predator. That is why glyptodons lived for millions of years, and only with the advent of humans they disappeared.

What was the size of Glyptodon

Glyptodon was essentially an armadillo the size of a dinosaur, with a huge, round, armored shell, puny, turtle-like legs, and a blunt head on a short neck. As many commentators point out, this Pleistocene mammal looked a bit like a Volkswagen Beetle. And not only externally, but also in size. Glyptodon had a mass of up to 2 tons and reached almost 3 meters in length and about a meter and a half in height. At such a size, not every predator dared even to approach it.

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