60-Second Science

Imagine A 200-Pound Armadillo

A new fossil find of a giant version of today's armadillos shows that the high country of Chile was once low-lying grassland. Steve Mirsky explains. With reporting by Harvey Black.

Imagine an armadillo.  Now imagine one weighing in at 200 pounds.  The fossil skeleton of an extinct ancestor of today’s armadillo was recently found in the mountains of northern Chile.  The find represents a new species, called Parapropalaehoplophorus septentrionalis, and is described in the latest of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

This beast and its cousins are known as glyptodonts.  Wearing a coat of boney plates, they dined on grasses and plants.  They mostly lumbered around South America, but did reach the southern US.  Other related species could weigh a ton.  Think of a four-legged Hummer.  The 200-pound Septentrionalis is a bonsai version compared to the really big boys.

The find shows that the now-high altitude region of northern Chile was once low-lying grassland. Glyptodonts became extinct around 10,000 years ago. The exact reason is not certain, but may be because guess who arrived.  Yes, when human hunters came on the scene, it might have been the end of the glyptodonts.  They certainly didn’t share the fate of many modern armadillos: road kill.

—Steve Mirsky, with reporting by Harvey Black

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