February 23, 2016
Ancient Volkswagen-Sized Armadillo Roamed Earth With Sabre-Tooth Cats, Huge Sloths

Tens of thousands of years ago in ancient South America, a humongous armadillo roamed the land alongside ground sloths the size of elephants and massive sabre-tooth cats.

Today, the armadillo is a much smaller, and often pretty cute, creature. But they're not nearly as big -- the giant version of the animal tops out at 70 pounds.

But scientists have just linked the modern-day armadillo to an ancient creature that grew to be the size of a Volkswagen, and both of them can trace their origins to one tiny ancestor.

The car-sized ancient armadillo has always been called a glyptodont. The first remains of this massive creature were discovered in the 1830s by Charles Darwin and fascinated scientists for decades, LiveScience reported. The glyptodont looked a lot like the giant armadillo, but scientists had no proof that the two were connected or how it could fit into the animal's family tree.

"[This] data sheds light on the familial relations of an enigmatic creature that has fascinated many but was always shrouded in mystery," said evolutionary geneticist and physical anthropologist Hendrik Poinar. "Was the glyptodont a gigantic armadillo or weird offshoot with a fused bony exoskeleton?"

The ancient animal lived for millions of years and went extinct roughly 10,000 years ago during the last ice age. The frightening but plant-eating animal was the biggest of its kind, growing to a length of 13 feet and weighing anywhere from 3,000 to 4,400 pounds -- or about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, the Washington Post added. It had a clublike spiked tail, probably used in fights, and had one solid shell. Modern-day armadillos have articulated armor.

After some detailed DNA analysis, scientists determined that this ancient animal fits into the armadillo family tree and should be considered a close relative. The two animals share one common ancestor as well -- an animal that weighed only 13 pounds.

As it evolved during following millennia, the glyptodont's size exploded and reached their massive size during the Pleistocene epoch, earning their place among the colossal ranks of other megafauna. Just after it grew so huge, it and the other massive animals went extinct in the last Ice Age. Scientists believe their armored shell evolved as the creature grew; the biggest creatures found have banded shells, hinting at this growth, BBC News added.

Scientists believe that the ancient armadillo split off from its family 35 million years ago; modern armadillos appeared about five million years ago.

To link the ancient and modern-day creatures, the DNA from a 12,000-year-old Doedicurus found in Argentina-- the largest glypodont ever unearthed -- was examined. Scientists extracted and sequenced the ancient armadillo's mitochondrial DNA and compared it to other members of its possible family tree.

The fossil sample was very small and time tends to degrade the DNA, so the job wasn't easy.

"Ancient DNA has the potential to solve a number of questions such as evolutionary relationship of extinct mammals, but it is often extremely difficult to obtain usable DNA from fossil specimens," Poinar said.

Researchers actually used a computer to build DNA sequences of the ancient armadillo, based genes from living animals. They used RNA "bait" on sequences to find the glyptodont DNA in the sample shell. Eventually, they were able to reconstruct the ancient armadillo's entire mitochondrial DNA sequence. Poinar called this method a "trick" to find precious DNA fragments.

The creature now joins a family tree of the mammal group called Xenarthra, which includes some truly strange-looking creatures: sloths, extinct ground sloths, armadillo-esque and extinct pampatheres, and armadillos.

Today, armadillos have been blamed for giving Floridians leprosy, The Inquisitr previously reported. These animals are the only creatures known to carry the disease today.

[Photo By Heiko Kiera / Shutterstock]