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What Is a Glyptodon?

L. Whitaker
L. Whitaker

The glyptodon was a heavily armored ancient mammal that existed into the late Pleistocene period, more than 10,000 years ago, and was hunted by pre-Columbian human populations. Glyptodons are classified as part of the Glyptodontidae family and belonged to the Xenarthra category of mammals that also includes modern-day armadillos, anteaters, and tree sloths. Particular species included Glyptodon clavipes, Glyptodon munizi, Glyptodon perforatus, and Glyptodon reticulatus. Glyptodons got their name from the Greek for "carved tooth." Fossils of glyptodons have been found in swampy areas of South America.

Glyptodons are known for their large size. Although they are similar in appearance to armadillos, they were substantially bigger at about 10 feet (3 m) long. The size and weight of glyptodons is often compared to a Volkswagen BeetleĀ®.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

The surface of the glyptodon's protective shell contained approximately 1,000 plates of bone known as scutes or osteoderms, each about 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick. There was additional armoring on the underside of the body as well as the back limbs. The creature's head also featured a cap-like sheath of bone because, unlike a turtle, the glyptodon was not able to retract its head beneath the protective shell. A ring of bony protrusions on the tail could serve as a weapon for self-defense against predators.

Glyptodons were herbivores. It is not known whether they might have had a trunk similar to that of an elephant, possibly indicated by the presence of muscular attachments in the nose. They were hunted by other creatures as well as by humans. It is theorized that juvenile glyptodons would have been more vulnerable to attack from predators because their protective armor plates were not yet fully developed. Humans might have sheltered themselves under the shells of deceased glyptodons in rough weather.

The glyptodon's closest relative that exists today is the armadillo, whose name is Spanish for "little armored one." There are 20 types of armadillos in existence, most of which inhabit Latin America. One exception is the nine-banded armadillo, which can be found in the U.S. Armadillos are the single mammal still in existence that have bony armor covering their tails, heads, back, and legs. The size of modern armadillos varies from 6 inches (15 cm) to 5 feet (1.5 m).

The eyesight of armadillos is very poor, but they have a highly developed sense of smell, which they use for hunting insects, fruit, and some types of plants. Most species of armadillo are considered threatened by loss of habitat and excessive hunting. Armadillos can live up to 15 years in captivity.

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