ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The New Mexico Museum of Natural History says the earliest examples of plant-eating reptiles have been found in the fossil record in southern New Mexico.
The museum made an 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 plants were not previously known to reptiles older than about 200 million years old.
Bone fossils were found near Alamogordo by Ethan Schuth while on the 2013 field of geology at the University of Oklahoma. The bones were part of a skeleton that was perfectly preserved but incomplete.
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.
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.
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 such special herbivores around 100 million years," Lucas said in a statement released Wednesday.
Gordodon is about 5 feet (1.5 meters) long and weighs an estimated 75 pounds (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.
Experts at the museum say that early herbivorous reptiles were not selective, chewing whatever plants they encountered. They say Gordodon has some of the same specialties found in modern animals such as goats and deer.