A new study has found that some dinosaurs had teeth as young juveniles which they gradually lost as they grew up, this has significant implications for understanding the evolution of the beak in modern birds.
Researchers have been able to reconstruct growth and development of dinosaurs from a young hatchling of less than a year to the age of 10, by comparing the fossilised remains of 13 ceratosaurian theropod dinosaurs known as Limusaurus inextricabilis collected from the Upper Jurassic Shishugou Formation of northwestern China.
The findings uncovered something unexpected: the dinosaurs had teeth as young juveniles that were gradually lost as they grew up.
The findings make Limusaurus the first known reptile with the characteristic known as ontogenetic edentulism (meaning tooth reduction or loss in development).
Together with other evidence, they led the researchers to conclude that the toothed juveniles were probably omnivorous meat-eaters. The beaked adults most likely transitioned to a plant-based diet.
Wang and colleagues first reported on this ceratosaurian back in 2001. At that point, they had collected just one fossilised juvenile, and they did not yet know what it was.
Over the course of the next several years, more specimens were found. However, it was not clear that they all belonged to the same species.
"Initially, we believed that we found two different ceratosaurian dinosaurs from the Wucaiwan Area, one toothed and the other toothless, and we even started to describe them separately," Wang said.
As they started to code the dinosaurs characteristics for phylogenetic analysis, they began to realise that they looked remarkably similar - all except for the teeth.
With more careful study, the researchers concluded that in fact the specimens did represent the same dinosaur. It is just that those dinosaurs lost their teeth over time.
The researchers identified 78 developmental changes in Limusaurus in all, with tooth loss being the most surprising.
The discovery has significant implications for understanding the evolution of the beak, an important feeding structure in many dinosaurs of the past, as well as modern birds.
Wang said that tooth loss is not so unusual in animals alive today. There are fish and an amphibian that lose teeth as they grow. Platypuses lose their teeth too. But the discovery is still a first for the fossil record and for reptiles.
The findings suggest that the dietary habits and needs of some dinosaurs changed over the course of their development, most likely along with shifts in their digestive systems.
The study was published in the journal Current Biology.
(With Inputs from PTI)