May 10, 2016

Ancient Sea Monster The ­First Vegetarian Marine Reptile


It is part hammerhead shark, part Loch Ness monster, part whale, and part vacuum cleaner.
Fossils unearthed in southern China have yielded a picture of a bizarre sea monster with a unique way of feeding, while demonstrating the capacity of life to bounce back from catastrophe.

Researchers say a crocodile-sized bottom feeder that lived about 242 million years ago was the world’s first vegetarian ­marine reptile.

The discovery, outlined this morning in the journal Science Advances, is based on two newly found fossils of Atopodentatus unicus. First described two years ago, it was thought to graze on small marine animals.

Now scientists have revised that assessment after discovering that it used its hammerhead-shaped jaw to scrape plants from the sea floor.

“It’s a very strange animal,” said co-author Olivier Rieppel of The Field Museum in Chicago. “It’s a reptile that no one would have thought to exist. It’s crazy.”

The new fossils gave palaeontologists a better view of the ­creature’s head, originally thought to have a downturned snout like a flamingo’s beak.

Rather, it turned out to have extremely wide jaws with peg-like fangs along the edges, and needle-sharp teeth inside.

Dr Rieppel’s team recon­structed the jaw’s mechanism using children’s clay and toothpicks, and concluded that it had been configured for plant eating.

“It used the peg-like front teeth to scrape plants off rocks on the sea floor, and then it opened its mouth and sucked in the plant material,” he said.

“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.”

Co-author Nick Fraser, of the National Museum of Scotland, said it was the only creature known to eat this way.

The discovery was all the more remarkable considering the animal had existed shortly after the worst mass extinction in history, the Permian event, or Great Dying, wiped out more than 95 per cent of the world’s marine­ ­species about a quarter of a billion years ago.
Dr Fraser said it was another example of the “specialised feeding behaviours” found in marine reptiles of the time, in creatures such as ichthyosaurs, placodonts, nothosaurs and long-necked protorosaurs.

“Now (we find) this very weird herbivore, living just six to seven million years after the Permian event,” he told The Weekend Australian. “There is mounting evidence to support the idea that life recovered very quickly after the extinction.”

By John Ross

With many thanks to The Australian

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