March 25, 2011

Saber-toothed Vegetarian Fossil Found In Brazil

Scientists have uncovered the remains of an odd-looking saber-toothed vegetarian, a mammal that lived 260 million years ago in what is now Brazil, the Associated Press (AP) reports.

Research published in Friday's edition of the journal Science claims that the dog-sized animal had upper canine teeth nearly 5 inches long.

Such teeth are usually seen in predator animals to give them the ability to better capture and kill prey, not munch on leafy plants. On this animal, named Tiarajudens eccentricu, the over-sized teeth were likely used to fight each other over territory, mates and to ward off predators, claims research leader Juan Carlos Cisneros of the University of Piaui in northeastern Brazil.

"These situations are extremely important for the survival of an individual and the success of a species," Cisneros explains. Discovering animals like this, "shows us how nature is extremely creative in providing solutions for several life tasks."

The skull was discovered in March 2009 during a field campaign in southern Brazil. The last two years have found the research team gluing the fossilized pieces together and analyzing how they fit.

The name for the newly discovered fossil, Tiarajudens eccentricu, comes from "Tiaraju," the place in Brazil where the fossil was found; "dens," the Latin word for teeth; and "eccentricus" ... an obvious reference to its odd characteristics. Tiarajudens are from a group of animals known as anomodonts, sometimes called "mammal-like reptiles" and were a major plant eater of their time, AP reports.

The bunches of teeth in the palate also make Tiarajudens eccentricus "extremely unusual," Cisneros explained, "I would compare it with modern mammals, which have one row of enlarged teeth for mastication "” except that no mammal has teeth in the palate, but the animal is so bizarre that no comparison is perfect!"

Much as modern grazing animals like cows and sheep, Tiarajudens eccentricus also had to digest similar high-fiber plants. In fact, modern ruminants have evolved a complex set of stomach compartments to break down their food for multiple chewings but there is no sign that Tiarajudens had a similar digestive system.

"If you asked me how surprised I was about finding this fossil, I can tell you that finding a fossil so bizarre as Tiarajudens eccentricus, a fossil that looks like if it has been made from parts of different animals, is like finding a unicorn. You see it, but you don't believe it," Cisneros told The Daily Mail.


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