A Saber-Toothed . . . Vegetarian?
Scientists in Brazil unearth fossils of a prehistoric animal with long fangs and an appetite for leafy greens
TOP: The strange creature’s fossils were found in Brazil. (Science/AP Images)
BOTTOM: The modern musk deer also has "fangs" which it uses to scare away predators and fight with other deer. (Mark Bowler / naturepl.com)
Scientists recently found fossils, or preserved remains, of a previously unknown animal that lived millions of years before the dinosaurs. The animal, which they have named Tiarajudens eccentricus (tee-AH-ruh-HOO-denz ek-SIN-trik-us), had a pair of fierce-looking fangs. These saber teeth were nearly five inches long! However, the teeth weren’t used to tear into prey—T. eccentricus was a vegetarian.
The researchers think that these sharp teeth may have been used to scare predators, or natural hunters of the animals. The animals may have also used the fangs to defend themselves against other animals of the same species. The modern musk deer eats only plants and has similar fanglike teeth. It uses them to attract mates and to fight with other musk deer.
The scientists know that T. eccentricus was a vegetarian because, in addition to the fangs, it had flat teeth. These kinds of teeth are used for grinding and chewing plant life. They also probably acted like a shark’s teeth. The roof of its mouth was studded with teeth, so when one fell out, it could be replaced by another.
BEFORE THE DINOSAURS
T. eccentricus existed about 260 million years ago—30 million years before the dinosaurs. It lived in a dry climate in what is now Brazil. It was a type of animal called an anomodont, a mammal-like reptile. This discovery is unusual because it is the earliest fossil find of saber teeth in a vegetarian. Previously, paleontologists, or people who study prehistoric life, believed vegetarian saber teeth only dated back to about 60 million years ago.
Finding fossils in Brazil is a challenge because of the country’s dense vegetation, or plant life. So research leader Juan Carlos Cisneros and his team used Google Earth to find rock structures where they might discover fossils. They could tell by how much the rock had eroded, or broken down, whether it was likely to contain fossils. The color of the rock also gives hints as to its age.
Dr. Cisneros couldn’t be happier about the discovery. He says in an interview with the Web site LiveScience, “Finding a fossil so bizarre as Tiarajudens eccentricus- a fossil that looks like it has been made from parts of different animals- is like finding a unicorn.”