Paleontologists in China have uncovered fossilized remains of an extremely odd-looking reptile that lived in the middle Triassic, 247-242 million years ago. The discovery, which represents a brand new species and genus, was made by a team led Xiao-Chun Wu and the results were published in Naturwissenschaften.
Atopodentatus unicus isn’t going to be winning any beauty pageants anymore soon. It belongs to the sauropterygians, which are aquatic reptiles (at least some of the time) with flippers. This particular specimen was recovered from the Guanling Formation in Southwest China. The fossilized skeleton was nearly complete, though the right side of the skull was missing. From tip to tail, the organism was about 3 meters (9 feet) long.
Additionally, A. unicus’s smile might be the stuff of nightmares. It has hundreds of needle-like teeth arranged in a comb pattern, but in the center of the upper jaw, there is also a vertical set of 35 more of those narrow choppers that sort of look like a cleft lip and palate, but lined with needle teeth. Even the name of the genus, Atopodentatus, translates into “disturbing teeth” while unicus describes the unique way the teeth are arranged in the skull. Though it looks absolutely horrifying, the teeth were much too thin and brittle to bite and chew large prey.
Scientists speculate that the set-up of the dentition was an important adaptation that allowed A. unicus to filter feed at the bottom of the sea. The different shapes of the jaw probably helped scoop up food that the teeth filtered out. These animals most likely fed on sea worms and other tiny invertebrates or microorganisms.
Fossilized remains of Atopodentatus unicus, image credit: Long Cheng et al., 2014