Saber-toothed predators are rare, but vegetarians sporting such fangs are members of an even more exclusive club. Scientists have now described one such creature, a short-snouted, tapir-sized animal known asTiarajudens eccentricus. The so-called therapsid, a close relative of the creatures that eventually gave rise to mammals, lived about 260 million years ago in an arid region of what is now Brazil. It had molarlike teeth suitable for grinding a fibrous diet of ferns, leaves, and stems. But unlike most of its vegetarian kin, Tiarajudens also sported sturdy saber-like teeth that measured at least 12 centimeters long (part of the species’ name translates as “unusual tooth.”) Those fangs didn’t have serrations along their edges and likely weren’t used for chewing, say the paleontologists who describe Tiarajudens fossils online today in Science. Instead, they suggest, the distinctive teeth could have been used to deter predators, to spar with rivals, or as a way for individuals of the species to easily recognize their cohorts.
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