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  • Susan Elaine Jones

Bulletproof Armadillo?

Having spent a lot of time in the newly re-opened Zoology Museum, I have recently been looking at Armadillos. Googling them, I see one of the commonly asked questions is "Are armadillos bullet-proof?"

Pink Fairy Armadillo at the Museum of Zoology, Cambridge

The story behind that question is nicely introduced by "Georgia man and armadillo fail to kill mother-in-law" and worth watching this video. But the short answer is no, armadillos aren't bullet proof, but also a 9mm handgun is a wimpy gun whose bullets will ricochet in a hilarious random way!"

However, I was primarily looking at the pink fairy armadillo - who probably isn't bullet proof, knife proof, flame proof or even being-stepped-on proof. But it is cute as hell and is smaller than a mole!

The great thing about the new zoology museum is the massive blatant use of cladograms - those family tree of life diagrams telling you how everything evolved from other things. (If you find that statement controversial, please refer here and here.)

Cladograms have been in massive flux in the past 20 years. So, if you have a degree in biology, zoology, or other stuff like that, this will all be new and changed, and the zoology museum is a great place to go and catch up. And then have a coffee and cake to calm yourself down afterwards.

Cladogram of Xenarthra - sloths, armadillos and anteaters

So, this is the pink fairy armadillo's family tree - also known as the Xenarthra cladogram (based on genetic analysis, e.g. Slater et. al, 2016! the ink is so fresh you can smell it!).

This is all so new because inferred anatomy relationships have given way to genetic analysis, which helps tease apart confusing similarities due to convergent evolution. And as the armadillos sit next to the marsupials, which are full of labels like:

Apparently it's a fun party game to give a zoologist a tasmanian tiger skull and ask them what it is. "well it's obviously a dog, but... erm... no maybe a wolf... erm... what's that doing there?" So, this is a short way of saying that anatomical similarities can be misleading. Hence the work with genetics.

Xenarthra case - armadillo and sloth

So, the family reunion for the pink fairy armadillo, family name Xenarthra, (What's a Xenarthra? Sloths, armadillos and ant- eaters, otherwise known as the upside down slow witted*, the crunchy on the outside and the straw for a mouth creatures). Their case looks like no one could quite decide which way was up, or how drunk to get, or what the dress code was - 'did bony mean nude to the skeleton or armour plated?'

The really fun thing from this to take away is that the familiar nine banded armadillo from the United States is not the pink fairy armadillo's closest relative. The Glyptodont is the pink fairy armadillo's big brother. And is bullet proof - for two reasons:

  • It is built like a 2 tonne brick shithouse

  • It went extinct before the invention of bullets

However, that does mean that inside every pink fairy armadillo, there is the heart and soul of a tank-monster. Beware!

Glyptodont armour - in Museum of Zoology, Cambridge

*Also, be kind to sloths. Their closest relative is the giant ground sloth, Megatherium, a 4 tonne monster that ate leaves by knocking trees down. The skeleton of one is also on display at the Zoology museum, looming over the public with its four inch claws!

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