Travels of the armadillo through the sciences and through the seas

In the vaults of the Le Mans Museum of Natural History (Green Museum) there is a strange animal from the past. It has an old label and is one of the oldest items present in Le Mans collections. This is not the pangolin we’ve all heard of lately, but another peculiar mammal, the armadillo, which flourished in the past. Not so long ago, he hit the headlines again as the mascot of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

This American animal, very different from the fauna known in Europe, has aroused the curiosity of Westerners since its discovery in modern times and appears in most curiosities cabinets. There are many works on its place in collections, how it has been interpreted by Western scholars, its depiction as an emblem of America, and its use in medicine in Renaissance medicine (eg Egmond and Masson 1994; López Piñero 1991 year.

This museum exhibit tells several stories about travel and science and allows you to present the research carried out as part of the European SciCoMove project. Scientific collections in motion.

Maarten de Vos, “America”, series “Four Continents”, 1600 (engraver Adrian Collaert).
Wikimedia

High-demand specimens that travel easily

In modern times, the curiosity aroused by the armadillo makes it a desirable animal for anyone who collects. One of its characteristics is that it is easy to keep dead, unlike other mammals in the same regions. The bone plates covering it can be easily dissected and transported over long distances.

For these reasons, many ironclads traveled after death starting in the 16th century, following the trade routes of European powers from their areas of influence (or their colonies) to the mother country.

The armadillo is then in demand because of its zoological features, and also because it symbolizes the exotic and distant American nature. The presence of a copy in the collection makes it possible to present this corner of the world there and demonstrate the prestige or solvency of its owner, who is able to extract rare items from afar. They are in many cabinets of curiosities.

Thus the Le Mans specimen comes from the collection of Louis Molny (1758–1815), the Le Mans naturalist, who probably bought it from a Parisian natural history shop. Acquired by the department of Sarthe in 1816 after the death of its owner, its collection added to the holdings of the Le Mans Museum, open to the public since 1799.

First kept in private or royal collections, many copies subsequently entered public funds. The Green Museum specimen thus bears witness to its transatlantic voyage, of which we know nothing, another voyage from one collection to another when it joined the Le Mans Museum in the early 19th century.and century. Many ironclads are now kept in natural history museums, mostly established in Western countries in the late 18th century.and and the end of the 19th century.and century. The Green Museum of Le Mans has four more examples, three of which were assembled in what is now French Guiana.

From museum showcases to pantries

Armadillos could also travel through these museums. Indeed, the history of these institutions is long and complex, and instances there may vary in meaning and importance.

In museums representing the world’s fauna, the armadillo remains the centerpiece of showcases dedicated to America. But it is no longer just an emblem of the exotic and a symbol of a special history of American nature, different from the history of the old world. It is integrated into the discourse on biodiversity and the dangers that threaten it.




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If the nine-banded armadillo is currently spreading in the southeastern United States, other species, on the contrary, are considered endangered, such as the giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus). Some museums, for their part, developed in a different direction, refocusing on local natural history. In Le Mans, an institution created at the end of the 18th centuryand century, it broke up into several more specialized museums. The natural history, archeology, and fine art collections were separated. The Green Museum of Le Mans now represents the local biodiversity in its permanent exhibition halls, so much so that the armadillo from the Main’s collection is now transferred to reserves. However, in the coming years, he will leave it and appear in a permanent course dedicated to Kunstkammers.

Travels of the armadillo in zoological classifications

The old label of the museum copy of Zeleny speaks of another displacement. Armadillos are indeed a family with many species grouped into several genera, and classification problems have arisen since their discovery.

Old label of the southern three-banded armadillo (Tolypeutes matacus) Green Museum, Le Mans, France MHNLM 2003.28.200.
Le Mans Museums

In addition to the French name “Apar with three stripes”, this label offers two Latin names: “Dasypus tricinctus, Linn” and “Tolypeutes tricinctus (Illiger)”. These identifications refer to two competing classification systems for mammals. The first refers to Carl von Linnaeus (1707-1778), an 18th-century Swedish naturalist.and century famous for the invention of modern binomial Latin nomenclature. He inherited from Clusius (Charles de l’Ecluse, 1526–1609) the name “dazip” to designate armadillos as a genus.

The second name was proposed by Johann Carl Wilhelm Illiger (1775-1813), curator of the Berlin Zoological Museum after its creation in 1810. In 1811 he proposed to revise the taxonomy of mammals and birds, giving a new meaning to “family”, above the genera and species preferred by Linnaeus Thus, he gives the family to which the armadillos belong the name “Cingulata” (from cingulum, belt in Latin), then divides them into two genera “Tolypeutes” and “Dasypus”, ranking the three-banded armadillo to the first.

The two names on the label are thus indicative of the debate about species classification that animated naturalist circles in the early 19th century.and century. When the armadillo entered the collections of the Green Museum in 1816, the curators wavered between two ways of classifying mammals. Due to its dental formula, it is now identified as belonging to the species Tolypeutes matacus or the southern three-banded armadillo.

Dead armadillo and live armadillo

If the naturalized armadillo has been in many private or public collections since the Renaissance, the live armadillo has also traveled in space and in science. From the 19thand century, it is present in zoological parks, which play an important role in the knowledge and study of nature.

The living armadillo, in particular, allowed one to think, by comparison, of the gigantic fossil animal, the glyptodon, which became a symbol of the richness and singularity of the giant fossil mammal fauna of South America in the 19th century.and century.

In 1788, the bones of an unknown giant animal were discovered in what is now Argentina and shipped to Madrid, before being identified in 1796 by French naturalist Georges Cuvier as belonging to an extinct genus, which he named Megatherium. At the beginning of XIXand centuries, local naturalists who are familiar with the living armadillos and engaged in their classification begin to think that some mysterious fossil fragments could be the remains of a megatherium shell, which they imagine as a kind of giant armadillo. In 1836 a plate Geology and mineralogy are treated with reference to natural theology The Englishman William Buckland (1784-1856) summarizes their reasoning well. The fossilized fragments are associated with the skeleton of Madrid and two living armadillos.

W. Buckland, Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology, London, 1836, vol. 2, pl. 5.
source

However, in 1839, the English anatomist Richard Owen (1804–1892), based on a schematic drawing of this fossil carapace and tooth, concluded that the fragments could not belong to Megatherium. He hypothesizes a new genus, which he names Glyptodon. Since then, this amazing animal has become, along with Megatherium, one of the central objects of the world’s paleontological collections, and Argentina and Uruguay have become the main suppliers of specimens for major museums. On site, public museums are gradually emphasizing the importance of paleontology as a national science. This is the case, for example, in the Museum of La Plata, founded in 1884.

“Los gliptodontes del Museo Público”, Burgmeister, 1864
source, Author provided

At the end of the 19thand century, the armadillo also penetrated biological laboratories. Attempts have been made to use it in the Americas as its reproduction rate is as fast as some rodents such as the rat. The new research also relates to embryology, as some species have the ability to give birth to twins. Currently, the armadillo is the object of research in the field of biomimicry. The structure of its shell is of interest to materials scientists.




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From America to Europe, from cabinets of curiosities to modern natural history museums, from taxonomy to paleontology, including embryology and modern materials science, the armadillo traveled extensively. At the end of this journey, we hope to show interest in studying the routes of objects located in science museums, paying attention to samples, old labels and archives.

This study is useful for historians, for museums, and for biologists or paleontologists who need to know how ancient specimens came to us, which they are currently re-examining. All these perspectives form the basis of the research carried out within the framework of the European SciCoMove project.

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