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Every year, as a final post, Ferrebeekeeper publishes obituaries detailing the important losses of the year. But what do we do for this disastrous pandemic year when the world lost so many people from all walks of life (and when Americans nearly lost our democracy to a larcenous conman and his enablers)? How do we characterize the human cost of the plague, strife, ecological degradation, and economic mayhem of this past revolution around the sun?

I thought about including tables of numbers or little biographies, but I decided instead that the best answer is to put up this baroque pen and ink drawing which I made to represent the year and its struggles. You can see the battle for political power which has rocked the nation and the world mirrored in the left and right puppeteers, however, the dueling grandees are less important than the larger tableau of molecular and cellular changes which are affecting the whole ecosphere. I imagine the great skeletal reptile at the bottom as the fossil fuel industry (although it might be the underworld belching up the fires of hell). The cornucopia represents the dark fruits of our endeavors (which we do everything to obtain, yet which always seem to float tantalizingly out of reach). A lovely bat flits around the upper right corner to illustrate the sad vector through which the virus jumped to humankind…but also as a tribute to the dreadful time bats are having.

Studded throughout the image are virus caplets… and grave after grave after grave. It was a dark year and we will be thinking about what went wrong for a long time (provided, of course, that things don’t go more and more wrong in subsequent years, which would certainly recontextualize 2020 in the very worst way possible–as a good year!).

We are not out the woods yet, but the vaccine is on its way (my grandpa just got his first shot). We have to make it through this dark winter first though. Then, in the new year we can start to mourn the dead appropriately. We can best memorialize them by fixing some of the problems which brought us to this unhappy point in time. We can truly have a happy new year by starting to work on the even larger problems which we know to be immediately in the road ahead of us.

We will talk about it all more soon. In the mean time, accept my condolences for any losses or setbacks. Be safe and vigilant and have a Happy New Year!

The Giant Armadillo (Priodontes maximus)

We boldly continue armor week with an overview of the magnificent armadillo family.  This order of armored mammals (Cingulata) is more diverse than any other sort of armored mammals–outshining even the scaled pangolins. Today the only living members of the Cingulata order are the armadillo family (a successful group consisting of more than 20 living species) but the armadillos’ extinct cousins were once far more widespread and bizarre.  These relatives included the pampatheres–long plantigrade browsing creatures covered in banded armor who roamed the continent from one end to the other.  Even more impressive were the glyptodonts, massive tank-like creatures bigger than a compact car.

A fossil glyptodon, fossil pamphathere, and armadillo skeleton (in the far right corner)

The Cingulata order is part of the superorder Xenarthra. Separated from all other placental mammals for over 100 million years (due to South America’s unique isolation after the breakup of the southern supercontinent Gondwana), xenarthrans evolved in different directions from other mammals. The unique challenges and opportunities of their island continent resulted in bony domed giants like the pampatheres and glyptodonts, both of which are characterized by tortoise-like body armor composed of bone segments (osteoderms).  The glyptodonts were unlike tortoises in that they could not draw their head beneath their shells: instead their heads were protected by bony caps atop their skulls. The largest glyptodonts could grow to 4 metres long, 1.5 metres high and have a mass of 3 tons (Ferrebeekeeper has already written about the smallest known Cingulata species—the pink fairy armadillo, which can still be found living in the central dry lands of Argentina).

Glyptodon

Thanks to convergent evolution the herbivorous glyptodonts resembled other armored giants like cryptodire turtles and ankylosaurs.  One species of glyptodont, Doedicurus clavicaudatus, even had a heavy spiked tail (although it is unclear whether this was used against predators or to compete for territory and mates).

Doedicurus clavicaudatus

When the first members of the Cingulata order emerged in the Myocene, the top predators of South America were giant running predatory birds–the Phorusrhacidae, which resembled giant dashing eagles up to 3.2 metres (10 ft) high.  The glyptodonts, pampatheres, and armadillos outlasted these terror birds and they then outlasted the carnivorous metatherian mammals (with terrible saber teeth) which followed.  When the Isthmus of Panama connected South America with North America (and therefore with an entirely new universe of ultra-competitive mammals), the armored cingulatans competed just fine with the newcomers.  Some glyptodonts and pamphatheres wandered up through Central America and found new homes in North America.  The armadillos are still there.  However at the end of the last ice-age, a new African species arrived and brought a devastating and final end to the glyptodonts, the pampatheres, and most of the armadillos. But even this newly arrived predator seemed impressed by the greatest of armored mammals.  An Argentine anthropologist even reports discovering a site twenty leagues from Buenos Aires where early human hunters had used glyptodont shells as dwelling places.

Human Hunters Stalk a Glyptodon (Heinrich Harder)

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