Conodonts were eel-like creatures that slivered through prehistoric seas during the Paleozoic era 250 to 500 million years ago. They measured between 1 and 40 cm in length, had large eyes, and fins with rays. But their most intriguing quality was their mouths – each jawless conodont mouth housed an array of hard, pointy tooth-like projections.
Conodont “teeth,” known as conodont elements, were for a long time the only evidence we had that conodonts existed. Paleontologists have spent years studying fossil conodont elements but until recently, they had remained somewhat mysterious save for the fact that they were diverse in form; the function different shaped teeth carried out was unclear. A new study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B has debunked some of the mystery surrounding these ancient chompers.
Duncan Murdock from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom led the study that analyzed cross-sections of the teeth belonging to the conodont Panderodus acostatus. They found that different cross-sectional formations corresponded to varying functions. Some elements were narrow and had sharp points – these were meant for cutting into prey and slicing food into smaller pieces. But other teeth had circular cross sections that could resist bending and twisting forces and would have been useful in trapping smaller creatures and keeping them from flailing around before they were killed.
Since conodonts were some of the earliest vertebrates, Murdock and his colleagues believe their study has wider implications for all vertebrates. Knowing more about from where and whom vertebrate teeth were derived can help us learn about modern creatures. Take heed, dentists: maybe these long-ago slithering creatures can even tell us something about our own teeth.
Read Murdock’s study, from August 14, 2013, in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
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