A saber-tooth mammal called gorgonopsian that lived approximately 250 million years ago had 5 inch long canine teeth that have been compared to steak knives. This detail is very interesting as it was previously believed that the saw-like design of the teeth were first present in meat-eating dinosaurs like the Tyrannosaurus rex, meaning that these types of teeth evolved much earlier than first thought.
Gorgonopsians were the first saber-tooth animals that lived on Earth and grew as big as 10 feet in length. They were considered apex predators of their time and had distinct looking sabre-tooth canines that could grow as long as 5 inches. They thrived for about 13 million years until the mass extinction event at the end of the Permian period (approximately 252 million years ago) wiped them all out.
Experts from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom revealed that the mammals had serrated teeth that were made from enamel and dentine – just like those of a Tyrannosaurus rex. What’s even more fascinating was that these mammals were tearing apart prey with their saw-like teeth more than 166 million years prior to the Tyrannosaurus rex.
Megan Whitney, who is a palaeontologist from the University of Washington in Seattle and an author of the study, stated that the analysis on the mammal’s saw-like teeth revealed that “this carnivorous specialization not only started in the Permian, long before the rise of dinosaurs, but also in a forerunner of mammals”.
She went on to explain, “Our finding shows it happened more on the mammal line as opposed to the reptile line and that it happened much earlier than we previously thought since these animals are much older than the theropod dinosaurs,” adding, “What we are seeing is this really cool instance of convergent evolution.”
Dr. Whitney and her colleagues were actually quite lucky that they made the discovery. They were cutting up gorgonopsian canines when they unintentionally sliced through one of the serrations which revealed that it looked incredibly similar to those of a theropod. In fact, the serrations of related mammals such as the saber-toothed tiger have serrations that are completely comprised of thick enamel and no traces of dentine.
As for the complex tooth structure, she went into further details, “It is a very complicated way to build a serration because it involves two different tissues making really complicated folds.” “What we are finding here is that actually these animals early in amniote evolution were able to evolve a very complicated and specialized structure.”
The fact that the folds contained both enamel and dentine meant that that their teeth were quite strong which made them last a lot longer and would have certainly helped them to tear apart their prey. The study was published in the journal Biology Letters where it can be read in full.
Images of what the gorgonopsian would have looked like 250 million years ago and several pictures of its teeth can be seen here.