X is for Xenarthran

Introduction: What is this?
A while back, after noting yet another kid’s alphabet book that had an animal for each letter but then went all to pieces over “X”, I went through the “X” section of our dictionary looking for an animal, however obscure, that might fit the bill. I found “Xenurine: see cabassou”[1].

Um, Ok. So what’s a cabassou? So, I look up “Cabassou”, and it says “Cabassou: see kabasou”. Whee! Round and round we go. OK one more time – “Kabasou: a variety of armadillo”. Finally!

And then I got to thinking: armadillos can give me an animal for not only the very-difficult “X”, but also “A”, “C”, and “K”. And just off the top of my head, I could also get “N” (nine-banded armadillo) and “G” (glyptodon). And a cursory look at Wikipedia quickly turned up candidates for F, H, D, P, S, L, Y, B, E, Z, and T. This suggested that an alphabet book could consist of pretty much nothing but armadillos! And that a lot of the letters could all be the same armadillo!

It turns out that “xenurine” specifically referred to the four species of cabassous, and these days is considered an obsolete term. But! Armadillos, and the related anteaters and sloths, are all classed together as Xenarthrans, and if we consider them all as a group, we get to keep our X! So, here’s a stab at it. It turns out there are still a few problematic letters, and I ended up including some of the non-armadillo Xenarthrans to fill things out a bit, but what the hey, right? On with the show!

A is for Armadillo
Your basic armadillo, as painted by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874–1927). I hope you like this picture, because we’ll be seeing it a lot.

(Public domain image)
Armadillos originated in South America, and most species are found there.

B is for Big Hairy Armadillo
A large armadillo found in southern South America.
Photographed by Guerin Nicolas at the Wroclaw Zoo
It has quite a bit of hair coming from between its armored plates.

C is for Cabassou
Cabassous are a small group of armadillo species that are also called “naked-tailed armadillos”. These are the ones that used to be referred to as “Xenurines”. This one is the “Chacoan Naked-Tailed Armadillo”, found in the Gran Chaco region of South America.


D is for Dasypus
Dasypus is the genus of armadillo that includes the 9-banded armadillo, which is the only armadillo species that ranges up into the United States.

E is for Euphractus
This is a genus of armadillos that is found in and around Brazil.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

F is for Fairy Armadillo
Fairy armadillos are very small armadillos. This picture is of the “Greater Fairy Armadillo”, which, as you can see from the hand of the person holding it, still isn’t very big.

(Public domain image via Wikipedia)

G is for Glyptodon
Glyptodons were giant armadillos the size of cattle. Being big and slow, they were presumably hunted to extinction shortly after humans reached South America. Not only would they have been easy to hunt, and presumably tasty, but I’ve read that the people who hunted them sometimes then used their shells as small houses.

(Image credit: Pavel Riha, via Wikipedia)

H is for Hairy Long-Nosed Armadillo
“Hairy” is right. If it weren’t for the armor plate on its head, this is so hairy that I wouldn’t have thought it was an armadillo at all!

(Photo Credit: André Bärtschi, via this page about the Peruvian Yungas region.

I is for Insectivore
The majority of Xenarthrans are armadillos and anteaters, both of which mainly eat insects. Armadillos have somewhat elongated tongues for lapping up ants and beetles and such, but the anteaters have really long tongues so that they can run them way down deep into ant and termite nests. Which is why the anteaters are classed in the suborder “Vermilingua”, which means “worm tongue”.


J is for Jumping
Surprisingly, some armadillo species can jump quite high when they are startled. They will jump straight in the air about 1 or 2 feet, and then dash for cover. This works well against predators, but unfortunately means that they end up hitting cars right around fender-height.

(Image Credit: Bianca Lavies, National Geographic)

K is for Kabasou
This is a variant spelling of “Cabassou”, and refers to the same group of armadillos.


L is for Llanos Long-Nosed Armadillo
These are close relatives of the Nine-Banded Armadillos that come up into North America, and probably looks similar. I can’t find a picture, though, so here’s the nine-banded armadillo again.

M is for Megatherium
The Megatherium, or Giant Ground Sloth, was one of the very large animals that lived in the Americas up until most of them became extinct at the end of the most recent ice age. They are believed to have had a very direct approach to eating the leaves off of trees – pull it over and eat it.

N is for Nine-banded Armadillo
This is the only armadillo species that currently lives in North America, where it is quite common.

(Public domain image)

O is for Orophondontid
These are another group of South American giant ground sloths, now extinct. They differed from other ground sloths in that they were partially armored. I haven’t found pictures of them directly, but here’s the skeleton of one of their close relatives.

(Image source: Wikipedia)

P is for Panzerschwein
Panzerschwein is a German term for armadillos. It means “armored pig”.

Germans also call them Gürteltiere (or even just “armadillos”, but what fun is that?)

Q is for Quirquincho
This is the Bolivian name for a certain species of small armadillo, and for the musical instrument that was traditionally made from their shells.

(Photo credit: Bernardo Peredo Videa)
Elsewhere, the musical instrument is known as the “charango”. The armadillos in question are now endangered, and charango bodies are now most commonly made from wood instead of armadillo shells.

R is for Rolls Up
Even though all armadillos look like they might be able to roll into a ball for protection, only the Tolypeutes species (the Three-Banded Armadillos) can actually roll up all the way. Most other armadillos just dig in and hold on so that they can’t be easily pulled out of their holes and flipped over, and the back armor is just to protect their top sides.

(Image source: Wikipedia)

S is for Screaming Hairy Armadillo
These are small armadillos that are known for their habit of squealing if handled. Don’t you think “Screaming Hairy Armadillo” is a great name? I do!

(Image source: Wikipedia)

T is for Tolypeutus, the Three-Banded Armadillos
Like I said under “R”, the two species of three-banded armadillos are the only ones that roll completely into balls. I would have thought that having more articulated bands around the waist would lead to greater flexibility, but the three-banded armadillos are more flexible than the nine-banded armadillos, so evidently not.

(Image source: Wikipedia

U is for Underground
This is where armadillos are frequently found. They have powerful digging claws so that they can excavate ants, termites, and other subterranean insects. They can also dig burrows for themselves pretty quickly, and then hold on so that they can’t be easily extracted. So their back armor protects their topsides, while the ground protects their undersides. They often undermine building foundations and cause other damage, so a lot of people don’t appreciate this behavior much.

(Image source: Professional Wildlife Removal, Orlando

V is for Vyötiäinen
“Vyötiäinen” is Finnish for “armadillo”. Go to Google Translate and click on the “listen” icon if you’d like to hear it pronounced. It sounds to me like “Vyulityainen”. The existence of this word is frankly astounding to me. Of all the languages that I would have expected to have created their own specific, distinctive name for armadillos, Finnish was way, way, way down on the list. Poking around with the translations, it appears to mean something like “belted animal”.

W is for woodlouse While the common woodlouse Armadillidium vulgare is actually a crustacean, it could be considered an honorary armadillo, because of the rather astounding degree of convergent evolution. See how similar the articulated armor plates are to those of an armadillo! Look at how it rolls up!

(Photo Credit: me. That’s my hand in the picture. We have millions of these all around our property)

X is for Xenarthran
Well, yes. Of course it is.

Y is for Yepes’ Mulita
Yepes’ mulita is in the genus Dasypus. I can’t find a picture, but it probably looks a lot like its close relative, the Nine-Banded Armadillo.

Z is for Zaedyus
The Zaedyus, (or Pichi, or Dwarf Armadillo), is a small Argentinian armadillo. Its scales are evidently more jagged than most other armadillos, making it particularly difficult to root out of its burrows once it gets wedged in.

(Image source: Wikipedia)

So, there we have it! Xenarthrans from A to Z! Oh, sure, some of them are kind of shaky, but it can be done! I still think it would have been really amusing if I could have shoehorned that one nine-banded armadillo picture to fit every letter, but that would have been asking a lot from one single animal.

(and I’m open to suggestions for better fits to the more dubious letters, and links to better pictures are welcome. Comments are open).

[1] I also found “Xiphias”, which is the genus name for the swordfish. But Richard Scarry already used that one in this book. And there’s only one species of swordfish, so there is not so much scope for using them as the subject of a whole alphabet book.

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Bob W permalink
    March 6, 2013

    Bravo, an Armadillo tour-de-force.

    Suggested title for the eventual best-selling children’s book:
    _The Armadillo book of ABCs._

  2. Mary Lynn J permalink
    March 6, 2013

    How about another armored animal known as the pangolin? And in Japan, some people keep armadillos as pets. They call them “arumadida” though Google translate has it sounding more like arumzilla. The former is how they would phonetically pronounce the English word.

    Vyötiäinen is the Finnish word for them, though heaven only knows how they figured that one would be a good idea.

  3. March 7, 2013

    Oh, hey, I like Vyötiäinen, I’ll use it! Thanks! And it moves me closer to the goal of “all armadillos”!

    That just leaves I, J, M, O, R, U, and W as a bit problematic. Although, the pictures of armadillos jumping, digging, and rolling up are actually pretty good and probably worth keeping, and the woodlouse picture is the only one in this whole document that I took myself. So really we just need I, M, and O.

    I had thought about including Pangolins, but then I found out that they are almost completely unrelated to armadillos, and decided against them since I already had some candidates for “P”. They are a remarkable piece of parallel evolution, though.

  4. JIC permalink
    March 16, 2013

    Followed you here from your link at Whatever. This is great! Do you have any plans to actually publish a physical book? I think it would be a great coffee table book.

  5. March 18, 2013

    I don’t have any immediate plans to make a physical book out of it, but maybe in the future. It needs some cleaning up and extending, I think.

    It would probably be fairly straightforward to turn it into a kid’s ebook, though.

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