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Evolution: Puzzles around the armadillo’s armor

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File:Nine-banded Armadillo.jpg
Nine-banded armadillo/Tom Friedel

In “A Tight Fit — Evolution and the Armadillo’s Shell” (Wired, October 7, 2011),

Brian Switek reports,

Naturalists are still learning evolutionary lessons from armadillos. In a paper recently published in the Journal of Mammalian Evolution, biologists Mariella Superina and W. J. Loughry considered the ways in which the evolution of a tough carapace among armadillos shaped their evolution and lifestyle. What are the consequences, Superina and Loughry wonder, of being an armored mammal?

The armor which covers the 21 known species of extant armadillos is a combination of bone plates with tough, overlapping scutes. (Among the modern species is the pink fairy armadillo — Chlamyphorus truncatus — simultaneously one of the strangest and cutest mammals I have ever seen.) Contrary to what you might expect, though, we don’t really know whether the armor provides any benefit as a defense against predators. The armor probably protects armadillos from abrasion by vegetation and their burrowing activities, and parasites have fewer spots to latch on to (they most often cling to the unprotected undersides of the mammals), but there is a dearth of research about whether or not armadillos suffer less predation compared to similar-sized mammals. This is an important bit of overlooked research. If the carapace of armadillos truly does provide a protective benefit, this fact may help partially explain why they are slow and have low metabolic rates. If you’re always carrying a shield, you don’t need to be very fast to protect yourself from attackers.

Given that the first three paragraphs of Switek’s article are devoted to Darwin worship, he creates the impression that a key time burden of research in this area is the  litanies to Darwin, time that is presumably believed to be time well spent.

Some say that worship is not a method of learning, unless we are studying God..

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