Extinct ‘Hammerhead’ Reptile Species Was A Vegetarian That Lived 242 Million Years Ago

An extinct species of reptile that roamed the earth’s oceans long before even the first dinosaurs arrived could turn out to be the first ever vegetarian reptile species to have ever lived. According to the Los Angeles Times, this prehistoric reptile known as the Atopodentatus unicus lived on earth more than 252 million years ago. To put that into perspective, the last of the dinosaurs died “just” 65 million years ago.

The Atopodentatus unicus was a menacing looking creature with a hammerhead-shaped jaw lined with chisel shaped teeth. In fact, even its name translates to “unique strangely toothed.” The hammerhead reptile measured over nine feet in length from head to tail — making it the size of a medium-sized crocodile. It had an abnormally elongated neck and had a very small head. Its hammerhead-shaped head was however the highlight of the creature making it easily distinguishable.

Even the scientists who discovered its fossilized remains initially thought the animal was a true-blue apex predator of the oceans of its time. However, new findings reveal that the ominous looking jaw along with the sharp teeth were used for less spectacular purposes. In fact, researchers now say the Atopodentatus unicus could just be the earliest plant eating, vegetarian reptile to have ever lived. Contrary to popular notion, not all reptiles are meat eaters. In fact, several reptile species — including the likes of tortoises and iguanas — happen to be strict vegetarians. Come to think of it, the Atopodentatus unicus might just be their true blue ancestor.

According to reports, the first fossil remains of the strange looking Atopodentatus unicus were discovered back in 2014 in southern China. After dating the fossil, archeologists found out that the hammerhead reptile lived during the middle Triassic era — more than 242 million years ago. The discovery of the reptile and its study has been published on a paper published in the journal, Science Advances. The paper, apart from describing the new reptile species, also talks about an extinction level event that is said to have taken place around 252 million years ago. This mass extinction, also known as the end-Permian extinction, is thought to have wiped out more than 90 percent of all species that were alive at that time. The hammerhead reptile is believed to have evolved just 10 million years after this huge extinction level event.

Initially, researchers thought the ocean-going reptile fed on smaller creatures that loitered on the sea floor. In fact, one study stated that the hammerhead reptile used its snout to feed on small invertebrate creatures on the seafloor by sucking in water and expelling it through its sharp, closely aligned teeth — somewhat similar to what several whale species do. However, after the discovery of another fossil, this time, a more well-preserved one, researchers now believe the hammerhead reptile actually scraped algae growing off the rocks on the seafloor and ate it.

In an email to The Los Angeles Times, Nicholas Fraser an author who was connected with the discovery of this hammerhead reptile and a vertebrate paleontologist at National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh, spoke about the discovery.

“We have given it a face-lift – literally. This was such a unique dentition that we need to reconstruct how the two jaws would interlock and work… just to be sure we had a workable interpretation!”

It was quite difficult for them to believe that the reptile was a herbivore which was quite an unusual thing for reptiles at that point of time.

“This fossil took us very much by surprise. However, this was a whole different world.”

So, do you really think this hammerhead reptile really was the first vegetarian reptile to have lived on Earth?

[Photo Credit: W. Gao, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology]