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Volkswagen-Size Armored Mammal Is Armadillo Ancestor

Glyptodonts roamed the Earth for millions of years until they went extinct during the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago.

A new genetic analysis of the glyptodont, an ancient armored creature the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, reveals that it's closely related to the modern-day armadillo.

Glyptodonts roamed the Earth for millions of years until they went extinct during the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago. The animal's clublike armored tail, enormous size and remarkable bony shell have captivated many since Charles Darwin collected the first known specimens in the early 1830s. Though the glyptodont looked like a giant armadillo, scientists weren't sure how it fit into the armadillo family tree until now, the researchers said.

"The data sheds light on the familial relations of an enigmatic creature that has fascinated many but was always shrouded in mystery," study researcher Hendrik Poinar, an evolutionary geneticist and physical anthropologist, said in a statement. "Was the glyptodont a gigantic armadillo or weird offshoot with a fused bony exoskeleton?" [10 Extinct Giants That Once Roamed North America]

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Glyptodonts are part of the mammal group Xenarthra, which includes anteaters, tree sloths, extinct ground sloths, extinct pampatheres (a small armadillolike creature) and armadillos, but its relationship to these animals had eluded scientists.

Now, a genetic analysis shows that the glyptodont is nestled deeply within the armadillo family and should be treated like a close relative, the researchers said.

"Glyptodonts, in fact, represent an extinct lineage that likely originated about 35 million years ago within the armadillo ," said Poinar, who is director of the McMaster Ancient DNA Center at McMaster University in Canada.

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Poinar worked with an international team of scientists to collect glyptodont specimens; they used ancient DNA-extraction techniques on one specimen - an approximately 12,000-year-old bony shell of a Doedicurus, one of the largest glyptodonts on record.

An analysis of the specimen, found in Argentina, allowed them to extract and sequence the mitochondrial DNA (genetic data passed down through the maternal line). Then, they compared it with the mitochondrial DNA of other living mammals in the Xenarthra group.

"Ancient DNA has the potential to solve a number of questions such as phylogenetic position - or the evolutionary relationship - of extinct mammals, but it is often extremely difficult to obtain usable DNA from fossil specimens," Poinar said. "In this particular case, we used a technical trick to fish out DNA fragments and reconstruct the mitochondrial genome."

An additional analysis suggested that the last common ancestor shared by the glyptodont and modern armadillo weighed just 13 lbs. (6 kilograms), showing that the glyptodont grew by leaps and bounds compared with its ancestor. The fossil record supports this idea, since glyptodonts appear to have once weighed about 176 lbs. (80 kg) before they evolved into creatures weighing about 4,400 lbs. (2,000 kg) during the Pleistocene, the period before the last ice age.

The study was published online Feb. 22 in the journal Current Biology.

Original article on Live Science.

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The glyptodont, an extinct mammal, is an ancient relative of the modern armadillo.

New technologies could make it possible to bring extinct species back to life, concludes a paper published on April 4 in the journal Science. These advances include back-breeding (assembling or reassembling an extinct species' genes), cloning and genetic engineering.

Woolly Mammoth

A leading candidate for de-extinction is the woolly mammoth. Russian scientist Semyon Grigoriev, of the Sakha Republic's mammoth museum, plans to replace the nuclei of an elephant egg with nuclei extracted from woolly mammoth bone marrow. The elephant would theoretically become a surrogate mother to a baby mammoth.

Tasmanian Tiger

Tasmanian tigers died out in 1936, in part because they had little genetic diversity which translates to "bad news for a species," said Katherine Belov, professor of comparative genomics at the University of Sydney. "Species are less able to adapt to change." Even if Tasmanian tigers -- or other animals -- are resurrected, it will take some time to build up diversity again.

Passenger Pigeon

Experts believe billions of these birds populated the Americas when Europeans arrived. Loss of habitat and commercial exploitation of the birds for their meat are thought to have killed them all off.

Efforts are now underway to revive the species by extracting DNA fragments from preserved specimens, and later, using band-tailed pigeons as surrogate parents.

Pyrenean Ibex

The Pyrenean ibex, a horned mammal once common in Europe, was one of the first subspecies targeted for de-extinction. Scientists began the attempts in late 1990s, when the last female Pyrenean ibex was still alive. Even if researchers could successfully clone that individual, there would be no males for her to breed with. Instead, genetic engineering might be required.

Saber-toothed Cat

Since saber-toothed cat bodies are sometimes found frozen, it might be possible to extract preserved DNA and clone the animal. About 5 years ago, scientists did just that with a mouse that was dead and frozen for 16 years. Woolly mammoth remains are also sometimes found in a well-preserved, frozen state.

Dodo Bird

The dodo, a flightless bird, proved to be a tasty meal for humans and other predators. In 2007, scientists found a remarkably well-preserved dodo in a cave. Dodo DNA could be used to resurrect this avian species.

Ground Sloth

Ground sloths, relatively slow, lumbering animals, were easy targets for prehistoric big-game hunters. Scientists have found remains that still bear soft tissue. As with woolly mammoths, there's a chance extracted DNA could be used to back-breed or clone the large sloths.

Irish Elk

The Irish elk has been extinct for 11,000 years. Like the woolly mammoth, it inhabited colder regions. As a result, bodies are sometimes found frozen and in relatively good condition, making them candidates for DNA extraction.


Earlier this year, Harvard geneticist George Church -- with tongue in cheek -- said that he was seeing an "adventurous female human" to be a surrogate mother to a cloned Neanderthal. While Church was really just theorizing about what it would take to bring a Neanderthal back to life, the possibility could be a reality, should any scientist undertake such a controversial project.


Paleontologist Jack Horner is leading a project to create a dinosaur out of a chicken -- a "dinochicken." He told Discovery News that birds "are dinosaurs, so technically we're making a dinosaur out of a dinosaur." He and his colleagues have been genetically engineering chickens to reactivate ancestral traits, such as long tails, which are more associated with non-avian dinosaurs.