Researchers published on Friday the discovery of the oldest and probably the first species known to be vegetarian, even though its particular teeth first made scientists think the opposite. The reptile was named Atopodentatus Unicus and lived 242 million years ago in what today is southern China.
When the species was first discovered in 2014, the poorly preserved skull led scientists to believe that it had a downturned snout resembling a flamingo’s beak with a vertical zipper-like mouth and sharp teeth. But two new fossil discovered from the same specimen revealed new information, as reported by Reuters.
The team later found that the beak was actually part of a hammerhead-shaped jaw apparatus that was used by the animal to feed on plants of the ocean floor, researchers said. This is the earliest known example of a herbivorous marine reptile.
“To figure out how the jaw fit together and how the animal actually fed, we bought some children’s clay, kind of like Play-Doh, and rebuilt it with toothpicks to represent the teeth,” said Olivier Rieppel, Rowe Family Curator of Evolutionary Biology at The Field Museum in Chicago. “We looked at how the upper and lower jaw locked together, and that is how we proceeded and described it,” he added.
It was concluded that the Atopodentatus used its bizarre jaw to help it eat plants by using its front teeth to scrape plants off of rocks on the seafloor and then opening its mouth and suck in the bits of plant material. After that, its needle-like teeth were used as a sieve and trapped the plants while letting the water back out, Rieppel explained.
Hints from the end-Permian extinction
The crocodile-like creature would have lived roughly 9 million years after the end-Permian extinction, a massive extinction event that takes about 90 percent of life in the seas and 70 percent of life on land, as reported by Los Angeles Times. How the life actually recovered after the fatal event has been relevant to researchers and the latest findings offers clues over the recovery period.
After the end-Permian mass extinction it is widely accepted that it took several million years for the trophic levels to fully recover, said Nicholas Fraser, one of the study authors and a vertebrate paleontologist at National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh.
However with the latest work, it was determined that 9 million after the extinction there was a very complex and diverse assemblage of marine reptiles. This implies that the recovery happened much faster that the previously, though, Fraser added.