The 242 million year old ancient creature had hammerhead-shaped jaws and needle-like teeth which made scientists believe that the animal was a carnivore. It turned that it was actually a vegetarian.
Scientists discovered the fossil remains of a bizarre crocodile sized reptile in Southern China back in 2014. The creature was a sea-dweller and lived 242 million years ago - long before the time when dinosaurs roamed on the Earth.
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The creature had a distinctive hammerhead jaw with strange sets of teeth. Along the edge it had teeth similar to pegs and further into the mouth it had needle-like teeth. Initially, researchers thought that the fearsome looking reptile was possibly a meat-eater who would like to prey on other animals living in the ocean. A new analysis suggests that the creature was not as terrifying as previously thought. It actually served as a lawnmover for the sea and used to eat algae and plants on ocean floor, making the earliest known example of a plant-eating marine reptile.
“It’s a very strange animal. It's got a hammerhead, which is unique, it's the first time we've seen a reptile like this.” Co-author Olivier Rieppel from the Field Museum in Chicago said.
To determine whether it was herbivore or carnivore, researchers used playdough or children clay and toothpicks to reconstruct the jaws and teeth and looked at how it actually worked. Researchers found that the reptile named Atopodentatus unicus, was a plant-eating reptile instead of carnivorous.
“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.” Rieppel explained.
The strange-toothed animal remained a real head scratcher for scientists since its discovery. But the recent reanalysis not only helped solve the mystery about its jaws but also revealed that it the earliest known marine reptile in the world.
Plant-eating marine reptiles are difficult to find even today let alone millions of years millions of years ago in Middle Triassic period. One of those include marine iguana only found on the island of Galapagos.
The ancient animal from China went extinct during the Earth’s most severe extinction event taking place 242 million years ago when up to 96% of all marine species wiped out on the world.
“The jaw structure is clearly that of an herbivore. It has similarities to other marine animals that ate plants with a filter-feeding system but Atopodentatus is older than them by about eight million years,” said Rieppel.
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“Animals living the years surrounding the Permian-Triassic extinction help us see how life on Earth reacted to that event. The existence of specialized animals like Atopodentatus unicus shows us that life recovered and diversified more quickly than previously thought. And it’s definitely a reptile that no one would have thought to exist.”