Insect-eaters and Relatives

By | September 9, 2016

Many early mammals were not carnivores or herbivores but insectivores, surviving on a diet of insects, worms, snails, and other small animals. They had excellent senses of smell and hearing, but often poor vision. They either made burrows in the ground or lived among the trees. Shy and secretive, many were nocturnal, hunting at night when it was safe to venture out.

FAMILY FACT FILE

Many different types of mammal feed on insects. Although these insect-eaters share some key features, they aren’t closely related and don’t make up a true animal family.

Key features
■ Coats of fur or hair
■ Pointed snouts
■ Short legs
■ Claws for climbing and digging

Leptictidium (LEP-tick-TID-ee-um)

leptictidium


When: 40 million years ago (Paleogene)

Fossil location: Europe

Habitat: Woodlands

Length: 3 ft (1 m)

Diet: Insects and other small animals

Leptictidium had enormous hind legs and might have hopped around like a miniature kangaroo, although it could probably scamper on all fours, too. Studies of its skull suggest it had a long, trunklike nose like that of an elephant shrew. It would have used this to sniff out insects and other small animals. Fossilized stomach contents show it fed not only on insects but also on lizards and small mammals.

Glyptodon (GLIP-toe-don)

glyptodon


When: 2 million–10,000 years ago (Neogene)

Fossil location: S. America

Habitat: Swamps

Length: 6.1/2 ft (2 m)

Diet: Plants

Glyptodon was a giant relative of today’s armadillos, but unlike an armadillo it ate plants rather than insects. It was an enormous animal, weighing as much as a small car. Its armor was made up of morethan a thousand small, bony plates arranged like tiles over its back and tail. It had a small, helmetlike head and flat-topped teeth for grinding tough leaves.

Eurotamandua (YOU-row-ta-MAN-doo-ah)

eurotamandua


When: 50–40 million years ago (Early Paleogene)

Fossil location: Germany

Habitat: Woodlands

Length: 3 ft (1 m)

Diet: Ants and termites

Eurotamandua was a close relative of modern pangolins. Pangolins have no teeth and feed by ripping open ant and termite nests with their claws and collecting insects with a long, sticky tongue. Eurotamandua had no teeth but had a long snout and probably a long tongue, too. It also had a flexible, muscular tail with which it might have gripped branches while climbing.

Deinogalerix (DIE-no-GAL-eh-rix)

deinogalerix


When: 10–5 million years ago (Late Neogene)

Fossil location: Italy

Habitat: Woodlands

Length: 2 ft (0.5 m)

Diet: Probably insects and dead meat

Although its name means “terrible hedgehog,” Deinogalerix did not have spines like its modern relatives. Instead, its body was covered with hair. With its long, conical snout, small pointed ears, and a tapering tail, it looked more like a giant rat than a hedgehog.
Deinogalerix perhaps fed on large insects such as beetles and crickets, but it may also have eaten birds and small mammals, as well as scavenging meat from carcasses. Rather than chasing after prey, it probably rooted through the undergrowth, snapping at any small animal it came across before the victim had time to escape.

LIVING RELATIVE

nine-banded-armadillo

Nine-banded armadillo

Like their ancient relative Glyptodon, armadillos have armor made up of bony plates to protect themselves from predators. Baby armadillos are born with soft shells, which harden as they grow. The three-banded armadillo can roll into a ball to protect its soft underbelly; other armadillo species drop to the ground and pull in their legs.

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