Saber teeth—the dangerous, vicious-looking cousin of buck teeth—are a pretty rare feature to find in animals. Mostly, the teeth are associated with several species of extinct cats. All of which were meat eaters.
But not all saber-toothed animals were carnivorous. In a paper published this week in the journal Science, a team of Brazilian scientists describe a delightfully strange creature that had both saber teeth ... and a full set of the sort of flat, wide, heavily worn teeth normally associated with animals that spend their lives chewing (and chewing, and chewing) on fibrous plant material. In fact, the only time you normally see teeth like that are in ruminant herbivores, like cows, which eat nothing but plants.
And that's not the only weird thing going here. The scientists have identified the new fossil as an Anomodont—a diverse suborder of creatures that weren't mammals, but had some mammal-like traits. These weren't ancestors of the mammals that exist today. Instead, we simply share a common ancestor. But, when it comes time to imagine with Anomodonts looked like, that relationship leads to some pretty crazy looking illustrations. Like the one above, where you get a thing that looks kind of like a lizard, but with mammal-like skin. It's an idea that's not totally far-fetched. Some other not-quite-mammals related to Anomodonts have been found with imprints of fur.
But back to our friend, the saber-toothed vegetarian sort-of lizard. If this creature ate only plants, then what the hell were those pointy teeth for? This is a point where scientists can only speculate, but the going theory is that this animal's saber teeth (which, notably, lack the serrations found on carnivorous saber teeth) might have been more about self-defense, or a way to fight rivals of the same species. Sort of like the way that bulls use their horns.
Image: Juan Carlos Cisneros
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.