Emma-Louise Nicholls, our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, is looking into the world of the Glyptodon for her Specimen of the Month series.
This beautiful model shows what Glyptodon (a type of Glyptodont) would have looked like, and is available to enthusiastic viewers in the Natural History Gallery. You’d be forgiven for assuming it was a huge great tortoise, but the hair gives it away as a mammal.
Early descriptions of Glyptodonts were made by some of the most famous palaeontologists in history, including Richard Owen (who invented the word dinosaur, and was almost single-handedly responsible for the Natural History Museum in London) and Thomas Henry Huxley, who worked side-by-side with Charles Darwin and helped to spread the word of the theory of evolution.
But when these initial scientific descriptions were being recorded in the mid-1800s, the affinity of Glyptodont had many guises. Descriptions included ‘feet of a hippo’, ‘skull of a sloth’, ‘shell of an armadillo’, ‘teeth of a capybara’, and a more general statement that described Glyptodonts as something between a rhinoceros and a giant ground sloth (Megatherium). I can’t see either of those myself but we have to remember early specimens weren’t complete and that the animated film Ice Age only came out in 2002. Glyptodon’s closest living relative is in fact the armadillo.
Our Glyptodon scale model is 1/12th actual size and was made by Edward Vernon.
Learn more about Edward Vernon, who made our model.
Perturbing pesky predators
In the mid-1800s a voyage to South America came back with two full boxes of bone fragments from a river deposit in Uruguay. These boxes were eventually emptied onto the desk of a curator at the Natural History Museum in Paris and took ‘four months of constant toil’ to piece back together. Once done however, the curator found themself looking at the huge shell of a Glyptodon.
The shell and bony coverings from elsewhere on the body could weigh up to 400kg, which meant Glyptodonts were lugging around a quarter of their body weight in armour plating. There are those among us that find Medieval Role Play on a Sunday afternoon a great deal of fun, but for a wild animal the energy cost of wearing this suit of armour is too great for it to be for anything other than pure necessity. Voracious predators were indeed stalking around the underbrush during the Pleistocene and an un-armoured Glyptodont would have had its goose cooked before it could say 'Which way to the Amazon?'
This rosette shaped fossil fragment shows part of the huge mosaic of interlocking hexagons that would have formed the huge dome shell of Glyptodon.
Why stop there?
In two of the largest Pleistocene species, a number of small gaps left by the traditional spread of Glyptodont shielding were protected by bonus armour plates. As these are only present on species that appeared later in the geological timeline, it is reasonable to suggest they’re adaptations to the evolution of larger carnivores than their predecessors had to contend with. Indeed, the largest land predators ever to have inhabited South America lived during this time. Poor Glyptodonts.
As you can see on our model Glyptodon had a heavily armoured tail. A number of other Glyptodont species thought this wasn’t enough however, and decided to evolve a huge club on the end. Clever scientific bods have worked out that an adult Glyptodont with a 40kg tail club could smack into a predator at speeds of up 12 metres per second. In a fight with another Glyptodont, that blow had the power to shatter the armour of the adversary.
My advice as a professional scientist? Don’t mess with a Glyptodont.
What did I say? Don't mess with a Glyptodont. Even if you have teeth as big as your face. Images used with kind permission from The Field Museum, Chicago., (c) The Field Museum, GEO80218 through GEO80221
Slow but steady
Most Glyptodon specimens have been found in Patagonia and Argentina.
Despite its appearance as a lumbering cumbersome animal, the fossil record shows it managed to venture as far as North America on occasion. Presumably they managed this courtesy of the handy bridge of land that popped up in Panama during the Pleistocene. The same bridge of land in Panama that connects North America to South America in the modern day.
Alfredo Eduardo Zuritaa, A. E., Soibelzonb, L. H., Soibelzonb, E., Gasparinib, G. M., Cenizoc, M. M., and Arzanid, H. (2010). Accessory protection structures in Glyptodon Owen (Xenarthra, Cingulata, Glyptodontidae). Annales de Paléontologie 96 (1) pp.1-11
Benton, M. J. (2005). Vertebrate Palaeontology, Third Edition. Oxford, Blackwell Science Ltd pp.317-318.
Gould, C. N. (1928). The Fossil Glyptodon in the Frederick Gravel Beds. Oklahoma Geological Survey 8 pp.148-150
Hubbe, A., Vasconcelos, A. G., Vilaboim, L., Karmann, I., and Neves, N. (2011). Chronological Distribution of Brazilian Glyptodon sp. Remains: A Direct 14C Date for a Specimen from Iporanga, São Paulo, Brazil. Radiocarbon 53 (1) pp.13–19
Huxley, T. H. (1864). On the Osteology of the Genus Glyptodon. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 155 pp.31-70
Zurita, A. E., Miño-Boilini, A. R., Soibelzon, E., Scillato-Yané, G. J., Gasparini, G. M., and Paredes-Ríos, F. (2009). First Record and Description of an Exceptional Unborn Specimen of Cingulata Glyptodontidae: Glyptodon Owen (Xenarthra). Comptes Rendus Palevol. 8 (6) pp.573–578