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Ancient reptile is efficient chewer

DURHAM, N.C. -- Researchers have discovered that a small mammal-like reptile that lived 260 million years ago is the first known efficient land vertebrate chewer -- able to use a shearing chewing action to break down tough vegetation.

This finding, the scientists said, provides evidence that the seemingly modest ability to orally process food efficiently allowed animals to digest a wider range of vegetation, sparking the evolution of a diversity of herbivores. This diversity enabled the evolution of the modern terrestrial animal ecosystem, in which abundant herbivores serve as food for a small number of carnivores. Before this evolution, said the scientists, the ecosystem was quite different, with herbivores being very rare and most vertebrates eating either invertebrates or other vertebrates that fed on invertebrates.

In an article in the June 7 issue of Nature, Duke University graduate student Natalia Rybczynski, and Robert Reisz, professor of zoology at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, report microscopic studies of the teeth of the foot-long reptile Suminia, whose distant relatives eventually evolved into mammals. Suminia predated the dinosaurs -- which branched from the vertebrate tree millions of years later -- some of whose plant-eating species evolved similar chewing mechanisms.

The scientists' studies of the teeth of the gangly, big-eyed, large-toothed Suminia found telltale horizontal scratches whose structure revealed that the animal brought its posterior teeth together and created an upward and backward shearing motion, called a power stroke, to shred plant material efficiently.

"Chewing is particularly important because if an animal can more efficiently chew its food, it can digest more quickly and increase its rate of food intake," Rybczynski said. "Such increased intake could have supported an elevated metabolism, similar to mammals." By contrast, Rybczynski said, herbivores
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Contact: Dennis Meredith
dennis.meredith@duke.edu
919-681-8054
Duke University
6-Jun-2001


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