The earliest examples of plant-eating reptiles have been found, fossils found on 300 million year old rocks in southern New Mexico.
The New Mexico Museum of Natural History made the announcement this week, saying the unique structure of the skull, jaw and reptile teeth supported by the screen showed it was herbivores, and that such special meals were not previously known to reptiles. older than about 200 million years.
Bone fossils were found near Alamogordo by Ethan Schuth while on a 2013 trip to the field of geology at the University of Oklahoma.
It might look like a dinosaur. But it actually belongs to a much older species known as pelycosaur – a class that is more closely related to mammals than dinosaurs. In particular, this one is the oldest known vegetarian of its kind.
The bones are part of a skeleton that is perfectly preserved but not complete. Field workers spend about a year collecting bone from the site and more time is spent removing hard sandstone that surrounds the fossils so that research can occur.
Paleontology curator Spencer Lucas and his team from the museum determined the bones were around 300 million years old, meaning that the reptiles lived during the early part of the Permian Period, or more than 50 million years before the origin of the dinosaurs.
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Lucas and Matt Celeskey's research association identified the skeleton as belonging to the new genus and the species they named Gordodon kraineri. Gordodon comes from the Spanish word gordo, or fat, and the Greek word odon, or tooth, because the species has large pointed teeth at the end of its jaw.
Gordodon is about 1.5 meters long and weighs an estimated 34 kilograms. It is believed to have been a selective feeder on highly nutritious plants due to the sophisticated structure of the skull, jaw and teeth.
And this makes it the oldest vegetarian tetrapod known in the fossil record. Previously, the first was thought to have appeared 205 million years ago, in the Triassic period. This discovery pushes vegetarianism back 90 million years into the future.
"Gordodon has a large diastema in his jaw between teeth such as the top teeth at the front of his mouth and nail-like teeth in the back," said Matt Celeskey paleontologist. "We see this a lot in living mammals today, like rodents, rabbits, horses [and] goat. "
Gordodon is almost like a rabbit in the shape of its head, with two large sculptures like teeth just in front of the mouth with small teeth farther in the jaw.
Experts at the museum say that early herbivorous reptiles were not selective, chewing whatever plants they encountered. But they say Gordodon has some of the same specialties found in modern animals such as goats and deer.
It also has a large sailing structure, like thornlike along its back. Why is not known.
The name of the kraineri species honors Karl Krainer, an Austrian geologist who contributed to the knowledge of the Permian period in New Mexico.
"Gordodon rewrote the books by pushing back our understanding of the evolution of special herbivores like that of about 100 million years," Lucas said.