In order to assess the mechanical properties of xenarthrous vertebrae, and to evaluate the role of xenarthrae as fossorial adaptations, in vitro bending tests were performed on posterior thoracic and lumbar vertebral segments excised from specimens of the armadillo Dasypus novemcinctus and the opossum Didelphis virginiana, the latter being used to represent the primitive mammalian condition. The columns of the two species were subjected to dorsal, ventral, and lateral bending, as well as torsion, in order to determine their stiffness in each of these directions. During these tests, bone strains in the centra of selected vertebrae were determined using rosette strain gages. Overall stiffness of the armadillo backbone at physiologically relevant displacement levels was significantly higher than that of the opossum for both dorsal and lateral bending. The two species also exhibited significant differences in angular displacement of individual vertebrae and in vertebral strain magnitudes and orientations in these two directions. No significant differences were observed when the columns of the two species were subjected to torsion or to ventral bending. Our results suggest that some, but not all, of the mechanical differences between the two species are due to the presence of xenarthrae. For example, removal of the xenarthrae from selected vertebrae (L2—L4) changes strain orientation and shear, but not strain magnitudes. Comparisons with functional data from other digging mammals indicate that the modified mechanical properties of the Dasypus column are consistent with an interpretation of xenarthra as digging adaptations and lend support to the idea that the order Xenarthra represents an early offshoot of placental mammals specialized for fossoriality. © 1992 Wiley-Liss, Inc.