Fearsome Fangs, for a Plant-Eater
By SINDYA N. BHANOO
Published: March 25, 2011
Researchers in Brazil have discovered a 260-million-year-old fossil species with a fearsome array of peculiar teeth: a set running down the middle of its mouth, and ferocious canines that were never used to eat flesh.
Juan Cisneros/Science, via Associated Press
The skull of Tiarajudens eccentricus.
The new species, slightly larger than a wild pig, is a member of the extinct group of mammal-like reptiles called therapsids, the most abundant four-footed species during the Permian period. The paleontologists who found it in southern Brazil, near the borders of Argentina and Uruguay, are calling it Tiarajudens eccentricus; their find is described in the current issue of the journal Science.
The short-snouted species also had top and bottom teeth that fitted together, as human teeth do, allowing it chew with ease.
“This was very unusual for the time for animals,” said the lead author, Juan Carlos Cisneros, a paleontologist at the Federal University of Piauí.
Tiarajudens was herbivorous, and the researchers suspect that its long canines — similar to those of a saber-toothed cat — may have been used to ward off predators, or by males to fight members of the same species.
Male musk deer have similar canines, Dr. Cisneros said. “That’s something we thought modern herbivores invented, so it’s interesting that in this ancient time, we already had these strategies