Determining what an ancient creature used to look like is no easy task. Complete skeletons make it easier, although they almost never actually found. And it’s not scientists can just take fossils and create holograms of what the creatures used to look like. Most of the time it’s just guesswork.
Particularly when dealing with creatures that went extinct millions of years ago, knowing what they did or what they looked is very hard. Add to that the fact that fossils are usually found by the bone, and paleontology is really put into perspective – it’s hard work which requires extensive knowledge and tons of imagination.
Using two new fossils found in the Yunnan Province in China, researchers determined that the Atopodentatus reptile didn’t resemble previous depictions. The marine creature was thought to have had a strange, zipper-like snout, but it turns out that it was one of the first hammerhead creatures in the world.
With its full name of Atopodentatus unicus (unique strangely toothed), the animal is the first herbivorous reptile ever documented. Its hammerhead also makes it a very special subject for study, as does its struggle to adapt after the devastation of the Permian mass extinction.
According to the study’s co-author, Olivier Rieppel, an evolutionary biologist with the Field Museum of Chicago, pretty much everything about the creature makes it even more interesting – from the time period when it lived to the shape of the reptile’s head, and even its herbivorous diet.
Animals living the years surrounding the Permian-Triassic extinction help us see how life on earth reacted. 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. Look at it, it’s crazy!
The marine reptile’s head was horizontal, shaped like a hammer, and had the anterior edges of both jaws lined with batteries of teeth shaped like chisels. The rest of the creature’s jaw was littered with very densely packed needle-like teeth that formed a mesh. This gave the team clues about how the animal used to feed.
While previous research pegged the animal as eating invertebrates in a similar way to the flamingo, the new data shows that the Atopodentatus ate by scraping the seafloor for algae and then allowing water to sift out through its many teeth, pretty much like a whale uses its baleens.
The team will keeping analyzing the fossils, hoping to unravel more about the mysteries of this extremely special creature. It is the one of the only two marine reptiles that were herbivorous, and the only hammerhead creature to have this diet. Plus, it is a very good example of how much science can be mistaken without being privy of enough data.
Image source: BBC News