for National Geographic News
Fossils found in South America's Andes mountains belong to a new species of the ancient armored mammals called glyptodonts, scientists say.
Relatives of the modern armadillo, glyptodonts were clumsy, bizarre-looking mammals covered with thick, immovable plates.
The animals—which perished at the end of the Ice Age several thousand years ago—could grow to the size of a small car.
The newfound fossils are from the Miocene epoch (about 5 to 23 million years ago) and offer important insights into the evolution of the strange creatures, paleontologists say.
But scientists who study fossils to reconstruct ancient ecosystems say the fossil also helps reveal surprising aspects of South America's ancient geography.
U.S. and Chilean scientists found the specimen three years ago while working near a site known as Salar de Surire in northern Chile. The location is some 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) above sea level.
"We had worked at the site several times and had a good idea of the sort of animals that were there," said Darin Croft, a mammalian paleontologist from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. "But we hadn't found a good glyptodont fossil."
But in 2004, when Croft and his colleagues returned to Salar de Surire, "we were casually looking around and happened to see osteoderms [plates of bones that form the new glyptodont's shell] eroding out of the ground," he said.
Three days of digging revealed parts of a shell, a jaw, and a limb bone.
"We didn't immediately recognize it as new," Croft told National Geographic News.
"It wasn't until we brought the specimen back and cleaned the bones did we realize it wasn't quite like anything else around."
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