Surprise Find About Crocodile Teeth

They reveal that some extinct ones were vegetarian
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 28, 2019 9:01 AM CDT
Surprise Find About Crocodile Teeth
Crocodiles used to be vegetarians with much smaller teeth, a new study suggests.   (Getty/Carl Jani)

A vegetarian crocodile? It seems odd, but a new study suggests some ancient crocs subsisted on plants instead of meat at least three different times over the eons, reports New Scientist. The revelation comes in a study out of the University of Utah as detailed in Current Biology. Researchers studied the fossilized teeth of 16 extinct species of crocodyliforms and concluded to their "genuine surprise" that half of those species were vegetarians, lead researcher Keegan Melstrom tells the New York Times. Or as he puts it to National Geographic: "Some of those extinct crocs had really weird teeth." More specifically, the teeth were smaller and more complex, in some cases with more than 20 separate surfaces—the better for breaking down plants.

"This shows that this was a successful dietary strategy," says Melstrom. "And I think that as we find more teeth in the future, we are likely to find even more groups that independently became herbivores." It's unclear exactly why crocodile ancestors moved in and out of vegetarianism—the study suggests they did so anywhere from three to six times—but scientists say it likely revolved around what was happening with the climate at the time and the effect on potential food sources and competition. However, it appears that no vegetarian crocs survived the mass extinction event of 66 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs, and crocodiles have been carnivores ever since. (Arby's surely approves of this.)

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