Posts Tagged ‘beautiful armadillo’

A Recent Study of Pleistocene Armadillo DNA Yields 2 Surprising Results

January 19, 2017

An extinct species of armadillo ( Dasypus bellus ) ranged throughout southeastern North America during the Pleistocene.  (A much larger species, Holmesima septentrionalis, was restricted to Florida and the lower coastal plain.)  Scientists have described D. bellus , known by the common name of beautiful armadillo, as being remarkably similar to the extant 9-banded armadillo ( D. novemcinctus ).  The most notable difference between the 2 species is size–the beautiful armadillo was twice the size on average as the 9-banded armadillo.  The latter species began to expand its range into southeastern North America from Mexico within the last 150 years, and today is very common and on the increase in the region.  In a previous blog entry I hypothesized the 9-banded armadillo was a dwarf mutation of the beautiful armadillo, and it was currently recolonizing former parts of its range.  (See: ) However, scientists were recently able to extract DNA from 2 Pleistocene-aged armadillo specimens, and they determined the history of the 2 Dasypus species is more complicated and even more interesting than previously thought.

An armadillo I saw at Scull Shoals State Park, Georgia.  2 species of similar armadillos occupied southeastern North America during the Pleistocene including this 1.

Scientists extracted DNA from an armadillo specimen found in Brynjulfson Cave, Missouri and from another specimen excavated from Medford Cave, Florida.  (They tried many other specimens but these were the only 2 that still yielded viable DNA.)  They determined the DNA of the Missouri specimen was distinct enough from modern 9-banded armadillo DNA to be considered a distinct species.  So much to my surprise, the beautiful armadillo is not the same species as the 9-banded armadillo.  But the Florida specimen held an even bigger surprise…it was a 9-banded armadillo and it dated to over 10,000 years ago.  This means both beautiful armadillos and 9-banded armadillos lived in southeastern North America during the Pleistocene.  The former went extinct while the latter was temporarily extirpated from the region but has just recently made a comeback.

The scientist who originally described the specimen from Florida noted its similarity to the 9-banded armadillo but chose to identify it as a beautiful armadillo because that was the species thought to occur there during the Pleistocene.  This individual was as large as a beautiful armadillo, showing that size alone is not enough to diagnose correct species identification.  Unfortunately, most subfossil specimens no longer contain DNA due to permineralization or decay.  All the specimens labeled ” D. bellus ” in the scientific literature should be re-labeled as ” D. species ” until scientists make a more detailed anatomical analysis of the genus, so that these 2 species can be better distinguished.

So why did the 2 species disappear from southeastern North America near the end of the Pleistocene?  Cold arid climate cycles probably caused range reductions and local extinctions, but armadillos likely re-expanded during warmer wetter climate phases.  Today, 9-banded armadillos may use manmade roads to facilitate their range expansion because it’s less strenuous to travel along cleared roadsides (though dangerous because highways are littered with armadillo corpses). During the Pleistocene armadillos probably followed trails trampled clear by herds of megafauna. This facilitated range expansion during favorable climate cycles.  The extinction of the megafauna may have played a role in the demise of armadillos that could no longer expand their range after climate deterioration caused extirpations. This isn’t a completely adequate explanation–Florida never got too cold and dry for armadillos.  The authors of the below referenced study suggest frequent manmade fires may have been detrimental to armadillos.  Native Americans set fire to the woods annually.  Modern day fire suppression may be another reason 9-banded armadillos have been able to recolonize former territory.


Shapiro, Beth; Russell Graham, and Brandon Letts

“A Revised Evolutionary History of Armadillos (Dasypus) in North America Based on Ancient Mitochondrial DNA”

Boreas August 2014






Zoo Cave, Taney County, Missouri

April 15, 2014

When I was a kid looking up information in an encyclopedia for a school project, I’d always get sidetracked and find something interesting while flipping the pages to the intended subject.    The same holds true today when I’m researching material for my blog, especially thanks to the thousands of  results produced by a typical internet query.  Probably half my blog articles originated from stuff I came across while looking up other stuff.  A few weeks ago, while researching my blog article about Pleistocene megafauna in northeastern North America, I reached for Bjorn Kurten’s Pleistocene Mammals of North America on my book shelf.  I was looking for Pleistocene-aged fossils sites in New York and New Jersey.  Much to my surprise, Kurten didn’t list any for those states.  Both states have lots of fossil sites but evidentally they were poorly documented in the scientific literature at the time this book was published in 1980.  However, as I was thumbing through the alphabetical order of the states, I was intrigued by a paragraph about Zoo Cave in southwestern Missouri.  Kurten stated the evidence found at this site suggested 2 climatic stages–a warm dry and a cool moist.  Kurten cited an obscure cave journal article published in 1975 as his source.  I was able to obtain a back copy of this journal for $10.

Taney County, Missouri where Zoo Cave is located.

Upon reading this article, I discovered the conclusion made by the original authors and repeated by Kurten was a wild overreach.  The majority of the fossil organisms found in this cave preferred cool moist environments, temperate climates, or are not restricted to any specific habitat.  The only mammalian species excavated here that preferred warm environments was the beautiful armadillo (Dasypus bellus).  However, since this article was published, fossils of this species have been found as far north as Indiana.  Modern armadillos found in North America can survive in cool climates as long as the ground isn’t frozen solid for long periods of time.  They stay in deep underground burrows during spells of sub-freezing temperatures and emerge on warm days to dig for worms and beetle grubs which are in the soil year round.  I can’t believe the authors of the study made their sweeping interpetation based on such flimsy evidence.  They assumed the occurrence of a warm dry climate phase based on a single species.

Zoo Cave did hold the remains of at least 81 flat-headed peccaries (Platygonnus compressus).  The cave was not a natural trap.  Instead, many generations of peccary herds used the cave as a shelter.  The green fractures found on many of the peccary bones probably resulted from peccaries trampling over their dead brethren.

New Pictures 063

The top photo from the below referenced journal shows green fractures of peccary bones.  There’s no evidence they were gnawed upon.  Herds of peccaries probably just trampled over bodies of their kin while staying in the cave.  The bottom photo is probably of a natural artifact, not a human made scraper.

A small dire wolf skeleton was also found in the cave.  Eight species of smaller animals that no longer occur this far south or east had a range that extended to this cave during the Ice Age.  They include the fox snake, arctic shrew, masked shrew, southern bog lemming, red backed vole, meadow vole, porcupine, and plains pocket gopher.

Fox Snake

Fox snake (either Elaphe vulpina or E. gloydi).  Fossils of this species were found in Zoo Cave.  It is a type of rat snake that no longer ranges this far south–evidence of cooler climate at the time of deposition.

The spectrum of animals found here suggests a local Ice Age environment that consisted of a mixed boreal and hardwood forest with some prairie openings, not unlike that found in modern day southern Minnesota, but it likely has no exact modern analogue. Fossil evidence of elk, fox squirrel, woodchuck, beaver, red fox, black bear, coyote, and raccoon was excavated from the cave.  The fox snake and 6-lined race runners preferred the prairie openings, but most of the species are most often found in temperate woodlands.

Zoo Cave is located in Mark Twain National Forest where an oak-hickory climax forest grows on good soils and cedar glades are found on poor soils.  The cave was discovered by 2 brothers over 40 years ago.  The cave passages total 1100 feet long.  The authors of the article found fossils in just about every area of the cave but intensively excavated just a part named “bone passage,” leaving the rest for future paleontologists.   As far as I can determine from available literature, this cave is little known and would be worth re-examination.

There is an interesting table in the journal article about Zoo Cave comparing northern and western faunal elements recovered from this cave with those found in 2 other Missouri Caves. Fossils of snowshoe hares and red squirrels were found in Bat Cave and Crankshaft Cave.  These 2 species no longer occur in this state.  Porcupine fossils  were also found in Crankshaft Cave, but fisher fossils were found in Bat Cave.  The latter preys upon porcupines.  Fossils of grasshopper mice, a western species, were  found in Crankshaft Cave.  The table lists a kit fox fossil as being recovered from Crankshaft Cave, but these remains probably represents the swift fox, a species also found west of Missouri today.

Swift fox (Vulpes velox) remains were found in Crankshaft Cave, Missouri.  This species no longer occurs this far east.  Its presence is evidence of an eastward extension of prairie habitat during the Ice Age.

Fossil sites as far east as Ohio, Kentucky, Georgia, and Florida provide evidence of an eastern extension of prairie fauna during the Ice Age.  There is a striking resemblance between fossils found in Missouri caves with those found in Welch Cave, Kentucky, indicating a similar type of environment covered a large swath of the midwest during the Ice Age.  (See


Hood, Clark; and Oscar Hawksley

“A Pleistocene Fauna from Zoo Cave, Taney County, Missouri”

Missouri Speleology 15 (1) 1975

Is the 9-banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) a Dwarf Mutation of the Pleistocene Species, Dasypus bellus?

August 19, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, I drove on Highway 56 in Augusta, Georgia and saw a live armadillo roaming a damp meadow adjacent to a creek bottom.  The setting sun and rising mist from a recently expired thunderstorm seemed like an appropriate atmosphere to witness this Pleistocene relic.  This was the first occasion I’d ever seen a live armadillo, though road-killed individuals are a common sight during summer when they become active at night.  Alarmed armadilloes jump vertically–an effective  defense mechanism that thwarts big carnivores but it is a disaster if the danger is a passing car, straddling the dumb creature.

9-banded armadilloes–now common from the coastal plain of the southeastern U.S. south to South America.

9-banded armadilloes are members of the Xenarthan order of mammals, also known as the edentates.  The species in this order have teeth with no enamel.  The Xenarthan order includes sloths, anteaters, and the extinct glyptodonts as well as armadilloes.  Armadilloes eat insects, grubs, and worms; and therefore require mild, moist climates where that kind of food is available year round.  Southeastern North America provides plenty of mesic habitats and soft soils favorable for this species.  Armadilloes survive hot summer days and cold winter nights by digging narrow burrows that shelter them.  Because they are relatively primitive mammals with low metabolic rates (almost like reptiles), they have difficulty maintaining a constant body temperature, and extreme temperatures, especially hard frosts, can kill up to 80% of the population. 

Mother armadilloes give birth to 4 identical clones from 1 egg, making them a particularly interesting creature for scientific study.  Scientists use armadilloes as lab animals to study leprosy because they’re one of the few animal species other than man that is susceptible to the bacteria responsible for causing leprosy.  The leprosy thrives in armadilloes due to their low body temperatures.

9-banded armadilloes have been expanding their range into North America since about 1849.  They were reported in south Texas during the mid-19th century and some were introduced into south Florida circa 1921.  Now, they are well established across the southeast as far north as the piedmont region, but they are restricted to creek bottoms with soft soils.  During the Pleistocene the beautiful armadillo (Dasypus bellus) apparently was common in eastern and midwestern North America.  Specimens of this extinct armadillo have been found in just about every Pleistocene fossil site in the southeast, and their remains have also been recovered from as far north as Indiana.  According to the scientific literature, the supposedly extinct beautiful armadillo was anatomically very similar to the 9-banded armadillo.  Sometimes the word,” identical,” is used to describe the comparison.  The main difference is size–the Pleistocene species was on average twice as big as the modern species.  Dasypus bellus became extinct probably between ~10,000 BP-~7,000 BP.  I hypothesize that Dasypus bellus and Dasypus novemcinctus are the same species.

Dasypus bellus–the supposedly extinct beautiful armadillo.  Note it is also 9-banded.  I propose it’s the same species as the modern day 9-banded armadillo which is nothing other than a dwarf mutation of this Pleistocene species.

I propose that following man’s extermination of the megafauna, the paleo-indians began to rely more on small to medium-sized animals for protein.  Men intensified their predation on Dasypus bellus–its leathery armour was no match for human ingenuity.  Men became expert in locating armadillo burrows, pulling the animals out, and dispatching them.  I think man caused the extinction of Dasypus bellus.  There is no known climatic event within the last 12,000 years that could have caused their extinction from southeastern North America, and it’s almost certain there were no unusual cold waves in Central America.  However, somewhere in South or Central America, a dwarf mutation of Dasypus bellus occurred.  Dasypus novemcinctus is practically unknown from Pleistocene fossil sites (I think 1 specimen is reported from the literature).  I believe Dasypus novemcinctus is simply a recent dwarf mutation of Dasypus bellus. Because of its smaller size, Dasypus novemcinctus reached breeding age earlier than Dasypus bellus.  Faster breeding allowed Dasypus novemcinctus to survive human hunting pressure.  This species is now in the process of recolonizing its former range–an interesting example of evolution that has occurred within written historical times.  Some scientists propose that this recolonization is occuring because man has reduced the population of natural predators, but this is implausible because 9-banded armadilloes originated from a geographical area where jaguars, cougars, and Mexican gray wolves abounded.

A recent DNA study supports my hypothesis.  Brandon Letts and Betti Shapiro were able to recover DNA from a fossil specimen of Dasypus bellus. They compared this DNA with Dasypus novemcinctus DNA and concluded  the 2 species showed a “surprisingly close relationship.”  Surprisingly close enough to be considered the same species?  DNA studies along this line are in their infancy.  I hope more studies like this are on the way.

Rapid evolution of size among the Xenarthan order is well documented in the scientific literature.  Dr. Hulbert of the University of Florida catalogued the changes in size between presumed ancestral and later species of Xenarthans.  It’s astonishing to see that the average length of the femur from a northern pampathere ( Holmesina floridanus–a species of extinct giant armadillo) went from 20.3 cm during the late Pliocene to 25 cm during the Irvingtonian Land Mammal Age of the mid-Pleistocene (when it evolved into Holmesina septentrionalis) to 33.2 cm during the late Pleistocene Rancolabrean Land mammal Age.  The same size increases were found for giant ground sloths, glyptodonts,  and the beautiful armadillo.  The size increases likely evolved as a naturally selected defense against predation.  The larger individuals were more likely to survive attacks from carnivores.  In the case of Dasypus novemcinctus the environment has naturally selected for a size decrease that fostered faster breeding.

The Northern Pampathere–Holmesina septentrionalis

Jaw bone of the extinct northern pampathere–an armadillo that grew to the approximate size of a bear.

In addition to Dasypus bellus an even larger species of armadillo lived during the Pleistocene in Florida, the coastal plain of Georgia and the Carolinas, Texas, Louisiana, and southern Arkansas.  It was 3 feet tall, 6 feet long, and weighed up to 500 pounds.  In Georgia its fossil remains were found at the Mayfair site in Chatham County, and in South Carolina its fossils have been found at Edisto Beach and 2 other coastal sites.  To sustain its size, it likely ate more plants than invertebrates.  Glyptodonts, distant relatives of armadilloes, occurred within a similar geographic range.  They grew to the size of a small car.

South American Species of Armadilloes

Over 20 species of armadilloes live in South America .  Here are photos I found online of 3 interesting species.

The giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus) found in the Amazon jungle.  It can weigh up to 130 pounds.

The screaming hairy armadillo (Chaetophroctor vellerusus).

The Pink Fairy Armadillo (Chlamyphorus truncatus).  Looks like something from the Star Trek episode, The Trouble with Tribbles.


Letts, Brandon; and Betti Shapirl

“The Recovery of Ancient DNA from Dasypus bellus Provides New Possiblities for Investigating Late Pleistocene Mammal Response to Climate Change”

ECU General Assembly Abstract May 2010

Mcdonald, Gregory H.

“Paleoecology of Extinct Xenarthans and the Great American Biotic Interchange”

Bulletin of the Florida Museum of Natural History 2005 45 (4) 313-333