Some extinct crocodiles were able to feed on vegetables, according to an analysis of fossil teeth published in Current Biology. In fact, herbivorous relatives of modern specimens evolved at least three times during the Mesozoic Era, which extended from approximately 252 million years ago to 66 million.
The current crocodiles are predominantly carnivorous and, as such, their teeth have very pointed conical crowns and thick walls. All are very similar in shape and size. “There is tremendous diversity in the teeth of their former relatives that we don’t see today,” says study co-author Keegan Melstrom, a paleontologist at the University of Utah and the Utah Museum of Natural History.
Melstrom and his colleague Randall Irmis studied CT scans of 146 teeth of 16 types of extinct crocodiliforms. No living member of the group, which includes alligators and modern crocodiles, feeds primarily on plants. In general, pieces with greater texture belong to herbivores, while those of omnivores and carnivores tend to be less complex. Sharp and elongated teeth help carnivores kill and eat their prey, but wider and uneven teeth are more useful for tearing leaves and grinding plants.
Comparison with other teeth prepared to crush bones, tear meat or eat insects, helped scientists get an idea of what the ancient crocodiliforms chewed. Some of the fossils were much thicker than those of current living herbivorous reptiles, such as iguanas.
When investigating the evolutionary family tree of ancient crocodiliforms, researchers found that vegetable-eating crocodiles seem to have evolved at least three times and perhaps up to six times during the Mesozoic. The old crocodiliformes lived in fresh and marine water environments and on land, says Patrick O’Connor, evolutionary biologist at the University of Ohio in Athens. Since crocodiliforms that fed on plants lived in different environments, vegetarianism was probably an important strategy for survival.
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