The Triassic period is often referred to as “The Dawn of the Age of Dinosaurs”, but personally I think of it as “When the Weird Things Are”. A new discovery from the Yunnan Province in China has been crowned the new ultimate ugmo.
It’s name means ‘uniquely strange toothed’, but one look at Atopodenatus unicus and you can tell that is definitely an understatement.
Atopodentatus is an early marine reptile, related to the famous plesiosaurs, but more closely to a group of specialised animals called Placodonts. At first glance, it might even just look like another marine reptile, albeit with more sensible-looking stock legs, like a dachshund of sea. I mean, it does have hooves on its flippers, so it would have been pretty comfortable on land as well. But ‘dachshund of the sea’ is a title that hasn’t been claimed yet, so that’s what we’re sticking to.
It’s the upper jaw and the teeth that are the truly ungodly thing about this animal. In reptiles, there are two bones that bear teeth on the upper jaw: the maxilla and the premaxilla; The maxilla being further back in the mouth, and the premaxilla being the end of the snout. In Atopodentatus both the maxilla and the lower jaw are packed with a multitude of needle-like teeth, but the premaxilla is something completely unheard of. The premaxilla is split, with the premaxillary teeth pointing inward at each other, forming that distinctive zipper that runs up it’s face.
Those needle like teeth are reminiscent of structures in the mouths of filter feeding animals alive today, so Atopodenatus is what you get when Guillermo del Toro designed the love child of a whale and a flamingo. The thing about filter feeding though is that you need a way to stop water going the wrong way at the wrong time, so it would have needed lips covering its zipper until it could be brought into action. What a smile it would have had.
As great as Atopodentatus is, one swallow does not make a summer. So if you have something really important due that you need to procrastinate, feel free to Google a few of my other favourite Triassic weirdos: Sharovipteryx, Lystrosaurus. Drepanosaurus, Hyperodapedon, Tanystropheus and Longisquama.
Oh, and try not to have too many nightmares about premaxillary zippers.