July 3, 2018
The glyptodon may seem like just a big armadillo, but it was the size of a car and could crush early humans with its clubbed tail.
In prehistoric times, it seems as though every single animal was bigger than its modern counterpart. Mammoths were taller, hairier, and heavier than elephants. Ancient sloths grew to the size of modern-day elephants. Alligators and crocodiles routinely grew to the length of a city bus. And snakes were so big that they could eat alligators.
One such enormous prehistoric creature that dwarfs its modern counterpart — and a creature that our ancestors came in contact with — was the glyptodon.
Now, glyptodon wasn’t a terrifying bird of prey that would snatch human babies before flying up to their nests. This animal didn’t stalk us like we were its dinner before sinking saber-like teeth into our necks.
Instead, glyptodon was a giant armadillo about the size of Volkswagen Beetle.
Like an armadillo, the glyptodon had a head and tail that protruded out from a large shell. It also had an armored back made up of more than 1,000 bony plates. These plates fit together tightly and securely, which made the glyptodon’s back look more like a turtle’s as opposed to a modern armadillo’s. But unlike either of those creatures, glyptodon specimens regularly reached 10 feet long while weighing one ton.
Glyptodons lived from approximately 5.3 million to 11,700 years ago, which means that early humans coexisted with these beasts. But our ancestors had little to fear because these omnivores ate plants, insects, and carrion as they roamed all over present-day North and South America.
Just as humans adapted to a wide range of climates and ecosystems on Earth, glyptodons did the same thing. Some thrived in tropical areas, while other adapted to life on grassland prairies. Others lived in cold climates. Most fossils of these creatures come from South America, from the Amazon River basin to the vast plains of Argentina.
Its size and hard back plates weren’t the only features that made this creature stand out. Its tail had a bony club on it, sometimes with spikes, that the creature could wield with deadly results. If you got too close to a glyptodon protecting its young, a quick whip of the tail could crush your skull instantly.
In fact, their tails were so strong that they could shatter the strong, bony backs of other glyptodons. Thus humans and other animals weren’t quick to mess with these creatures — at least not without having a plan.
Hunting And Extinction
Though no match for the glyptodon’s strength and size, humans were able to outsmart these animals and sometimes hunt them. Although their backs and tails were strong and sturdy, their underbellies were soft. If a hunting group could turn a glyptodon over onto its back, they could throw sharp spears into the animal’s underside to kill it. That’s only if they avoided the spiked tail and if they prevented the creature from curling into the world’s largest medicine ball.
But if humans could succeed in making a kill, the meat of such a large creature would have been a valuable resource. And not just the meat: Fossil evidence found in South America has some paleontologists stating that early humans used the empty shells as shelters from rain, snow, and the like. Yes, these creatures were so large that the shells of the dead could serve as makeshift shelters for early humans. Imagine our ancestors huddling under a giant armadillo shell during intense tropical rainstorms or fierce blizzards.
Ultimately, however, hunting is what likely led to the glyptodon’s downfall. Scientists believe that the last glyptodons died out shortly after the last Ice Age because of overhunting by humans as well as climate change.
Today, some of us live side by side with the armadillos that are our modern-day version of the glyptodon. Just be thankful that armadillos are about 50 times smaller than their prehistoric predecessors.