New fossil evidence has revealed the existence of a bizarre looking animal that is now believed to be the first known vegetarian marine reptile.
The two specimens of fossils were unearthed in China and reveal details of the animal’s skull and how it fed itself.
Scientists say that the creature, named Atopodentatus, had a hammer-shaped skull, which helped it to feed itself on underwater plants.
Scientists also suggest that the crocodile-sized creature that lived 242 million years ago was the first known vegetarian marine reptile.
The discovery is important as only a handful of marine reptiles, living or extinct, are known to be herbivores.
The story was published in the journal Science Advances.
Marine Reptile Was A Bizarre Animal
Dr Nick Fraser of National Museums Scotland, who worked on the fossil, said that the reptile was “ a bizarre, bizarre animal.”
“We envisage it scraping algae and the like off rocks underwater.
“Herbivorous marine reptiles are very rare – this is the oldest record that we know of.”
He added that this strange animal belonged in the pages of a children’s storybook by Dr Seuss, which depicts animals with a strange assortment of features.
Marine Reptile Had Strange Teeth
The first fossils of this bizarre, crocodile sized creature were discovered a few years ago.
It was named Atopodentatus unicus, which in Latin means “unique strangely toothed”.
The new fossils were unearthed in China’s Yunnan Province by Chun Li of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing.
These recently unearthed fossils provide a detailed picture of the animal’s skull.
The new fossils reveal that rather than having a zipper-like snout as was previously assumed, the animal had a wide hammer-headed jaw filled with peg-like front teeth.
Scientists used clay to create a model of the jaw, in order to figure out how the animal fed itself.
“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 co-researcher Olivier Rieppel of the Field Museum in Chicago.
“We looked at how the upper and lower jaw locked together, and that’s how we proceeded and described it.”
Marine Reptile Tells About Mass Extinction
Olivier Rieppel said that the fossils of the Atopodentatus also help us to know more about the world’s largest mass extinction 252 million years ago.
“The existence of specialised animals like Atopodentatus unicus shows us that life recovered and diversified more quickly than previously thought,” he said.
“And it’s definitely a reptile that no one would have thought to exist – look at it, it’s crazy!”
The Atopodentaus existed at the time when the Earth was recovering from the loss of 90% of all marine mammals.