Doedicurus: The Giant Prehistoric Armadillo

Megafauna of the Pleistocene

doedicurus
Doedicurus. Wikimedia Commons

Doedicurus was an enormous ancestor of the modern armadillo which wandered the pampas and savannas of South America during the Pleistocene epoch. It disappeared from the fossil record about 10,000 years ago along with many other large Ice Age animals. While climate change made have played a factor in its extinction, it's likely that human hunters, too, helped precipitate its demise.

Doedicurus Overview

Name:

Doedicurus (Greek for "pestle tail"); pronounced DAY-dih-CURE-us

Habitat:

Swamps of South America

Historical Epoch:

Pleistocene-Modern (2 million-10,000 years ago)

Size and Weight:

About 13 feet long and one ton

Diet:

Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large, thick shell; long tail with club and spikes on end

About Doedicurus

Doedicurus was a member of the Glyptodont family, a megafauna mammal of the Pleistocene epoch. It lived at the same time and in the same place as many other enormous Ice Age mammals and birds, including giant ground sloths, saber-toothed cats, and huge flightless carnivorous birds sometimes nicknamed "terror birds." While most glyptodonts towering, flightless, carnivorous “terror birds.” For a relatively brief period, it also shared its habitat with early human beings. Most glyptodonts have been found in South America, but some fossilized remains have been found in the southern United States, from Arizona through the Carolinas.

This slow-moving vegetarian was about the size of a small car, was covered by a large, domed, armored shell with an additional smaller dome in front. It also possessed a clubbed, spiked tail similar to those of the ankylosaur and stegosaur dinosaurs that preceded it by tens of millions of years. Researchers suggest that the spiked tails may have been used to attack other males when competing for the attention of females. Some experts believe Doedicurus also had a short, prehensile snout, similar to an elephant's trunk, but solid evidence for this is lacking.

The carapace (hard upper shell) was anchored to the animal's pelvis, but it was not connected to the shoulder. Some paleontologists hypothesize that the smaller front dome may have played a similar role to a camel's hump, storing fat for the dry season. It may also have helped protect the animal from predators.

DNA Evidence Shows a Connection to Modern Armadillos

All Glyptodont species are part of a mammal group called Xenarthra. This group includes a number of modern species including tree sloths and anteaters, as well as several extinct species such as Pampatheres (similar to armadillos) and ground sloths. Until recently, however, the exact relationship between Doedicurus and other members of the Xenarthra group was unclear.

Recently, scientists were able to extract fragments of DNA from the fossilized carapace of a 12,000-year-old Doedicurus discovered in South America. Their intent was to establish once and for all the place of Doedicurus and its fellow "glyptodonts" on the armadillo family tree. Their conclusion: Glyptodonts were, in fact, a distinct Pleistocene sub-family of armadillos, and the closest living relative of these thousand-pound behemoths is the Dwarf Pink Fairy Armadillo of Argentina, which only measures a few inches across.

Researchers believe that Glyptodonts and their modern cousins evolved from the same 35 million-year-old common ancestor, a creature that weighed only about 13 pounds. The huge Glyptodonts split off as a group very quickly, while the modern armadillo did not appear until about 30 million years later. According to one theory, the Doedicurus's unarticulated back was an important factor in its extraordinary growth.