Paleontologists continue to find and identify organisms and animals from millions of years ago that give us an even better idea of the conditions of the planet over the eons of history. Of course, once in a while scientists also find bizarre fossils that make them scratch their heads.
Take, for example, a crocodile-sized, sea-dwelling, herbivorous reptile that lived about 242 million years ago in the area of the world we now know to be southern China. Discovered in 2014, the head of the animal was poorly preserved but scientists were able to determine that it possessed what appeared to be a flamingo-like beak.
But, since its discovery, the research team has realized that what they thought was a beak was actually part of a jaw shaped similar to a hammerhead, a unique jaw which it would have used to feed on plants at the bottom of the ocean.
This is now the earliest known example of an herbivorous marine reptile.
“It’s a very strange animal,” explains Olivier Rieppel, who is the Rowe Family Curator of Evolutionary Biology at The Field Museum in Chicago. “It’s got a hammerhead, which is unique, it’s the first time we’ve seen a reptile like this.”
Co-authoring the study with colleagues from the National Museums Scotland as well as the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology and the Wuhan Centre of the China Geological Survey, in China.
Rieppel goes on to explain the process: “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. We looked at how the upper and lower jaw locked together, and that’s how we proceeded and described it.”
He further explains that the animal—Atopodentatus unicus—”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.”
While this discovery and identification certainly solves the mystery of this strange animal, it also gives us a unique look at early herbivorous reptiles, which also provides more data on the mass extinction event that happened 252 million years ago. And so, more study will continue.