February 23, 2016
Ancient Armadillo Was As Big As A Car -- So What Happened?

Imagine strolling through the wilderness of Argentina and happening upon an armadillo the size of a car. Had you taken that walk a little over 10,000 years ago, such a discovery would be a very real possibility. However, the car-sized ancient armadillo known as the Doedicurus has been extinct for millennia.

The mysterious nature of this enormous mammal has fascinated scientists, including Charles Darwin, since its discovery in the early 19th century. Now, nearly 200 years later, scientists believe they have solved the mystery of this ancient creature and its ties to the modern-day armadillo.

According to the Washington Post, the Doedicurus is actually part of "a family of ancient animals called Glyptodonts." What's interesting about the ancient armadillo itself is that at first glance, you're likely to mistake it for a dinosaur called an Ankylosaurus, a reptilian animal that also had a spiky, shell-like exterior and a dangerous club-like tail.

Reuters reports that it's theorized this tidbit is no coincidence, with researchers crediting "convergent evolution" for the similarities; that's when two separate species develop similar qualities to "adapt to life in similar environments or ecological niches."

While observers would have no trouble seeing the commonalities between the ancient armadillo and a particular dinosaur, others struggled to figure out exactly how it and other Glyptodonts fit in with other extinct mammals. Researchers Hendrik Poinar of McMaster University and Frédéric Delsu of the French National Centre for Scientific Research finally answered the "how" in a study published on Monday in Current Biology.

According to researchers, the car-sized ancient armadillo shares key genetic traits with its much smaller, "roly-poly" modern cousin. Careful analysis found that these creatures are definitely part of the "distinct subfamily in the family Chlamyphoridae" that boasts the pink fairy armadillo as a member.
The tiny armadillo could indeed be construed as a tinier and far less intimidating version of the Ice Age giants of the past. How did Poinar, Delsu, and their team of scientists make this genetic connection? Explained Poinar, "In this particular case, we used a technical trick to fish out DNA fragments and reconstruct the mitochondrial genome."

You can view a more technical explanation in the published study. The scientists emphasized that getting the DNA from remains that had deteriorated for thousands of years was no simple task. However, it was worth the effort as it provided a concrete link between past and present.

As awesome as it is to imagine these giant armadillos still wandering the Earth, the fact that they're no longer around raises an inevitable question: Why?

The answer isn't too complex, and humanity does likely figure into it.

Reuters explains that the last of these ancient armadillo-like creatures vanished sometime during the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. As for the "why," you'd have to consider what was happening: climate change. The changing ecosystems, temperatures, and available food sources would have meant a harsh new reality for the Doedicurus and other ancient animals. Some species evolved, adapting to the changing world around them and passing on crucial evolutionary changes.

Other species simply couldn't change and they went extinct. However, in the case of the Doedicurus, it's believed that humans may have also played a role in their disappearance thanks hunting patterns. Humans seeking food sources would have put these lumbering giants under "tremendous pressure." Once these animals were gone, humans of the time would have simply moved on to the next available food source, having no concern for their extinction.

Although it's a little sad to think that the ancient armadillo-type species is no longer around, the world does still have "fun-size" versions that people can observe and enjoy. The Doedicurus also left vital clues that will continue to shed light on the mysteries surrounding its existence.

[Photo courtesy of LadyofHats via Wikimedia Commons| Cropped and Resized | CC BY-SA 2.0 ]