'Hammerhead' creature was world’s first plant-eating marine reptile
In 2014, scientists discovered a bizarre fossil—a crocodile-sized sea-dwelling reptile that lived 242 million years ago in what today is southern China. Its head was poorly preserved, but it seemed to have a flamingo-like beak. But in a paper published today in Science Advances, paleontologists reveal what was really going on—that “beak” is actually part of a hammerhead-shaped jaw apparatus, which it used to feed on plants on the ocean floor. It’s the earliest known example of an herbivorous marine reptile.
|Life reconstruction of the hammerhead reptile [Credit: © Y. Chen, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and |
The reptile’s name, Atopodentatus unicus, hints at its muddled past—it’s Latin for “unique strangely toothed.” But newly discovered fossils make it clearer how its “strange teeth” were actually configured. Its wide jaw was shaped like a hammerhead, and along the edge, it had peg-like teeth. Then, further into its mouth, it had bunches of needle-like teeth.
|A fossil of Atopodenatus unicus is alongside a reconstruction showing what it would have looked like in life |
[Credit: © Nick Fraser]
The verdict: Atopodentatus unicus used its bizarre jaw to help it eat plants. “It used the peg-like front teeth to scrape plants off of rocks on the sea floor, and then it opened its mouth and sucked in the bits of plant material. Then, it used its needle-like teeth as a sieve, trapping the plants and letting the water back out, like how whales filter-feed with their baleen,” explains Rieppel.
|To determine the way that Atopodenatus unicus's jaw worked, the scientists made models out of children's clay and|
toothpicks [Credit: © Olivier Rieppel, The Field Museum]
Atopodentus also helps tell a bigger story about the world’s largest mass extinction 252 million years ago. “Animals living the years surrounding the Permian-Triassic extinction help us see how life on earth reacted to that event,” says Rieppel. “The existence of specialized animals like Atopodentatus unicus shows us that life recovered and diversified more quickly than previously though. And it’s definitely a reptile that no one would have thought to exist—look at it, it’s crazy!”
Source: Field Museum [May 06, 2016]