A fang-like tooth on double upper lips, spiny teeth on the tongue and a pulley-like mechanism to move the tongue backwards and forwards – this bizarre bite belongs to a conodont and, thanks to a fresh fossil find, has now been analyzed and reconstructed by a Swiss-French research team headed by paleontologists from the University of Zurich. Their analysis sheds some light on the evolutionary origin of jaws. Using a 3D animated model, the reconstruction shows for the first time how the first vertebrates fed.

Jaws made of bone are commonplace in the animal kingdom. However, how jaws developed in the course of evolution is still a mystery. Under the direction of paleontologist Nicolas Goudemand, a team of researchers from the University of Zurich and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility set about solving this puzzle. Living and extinct jawless animals can yield clues as to the development of the jaw. The researchers studied fossilized conodonts – extinct, eel-shaped animals whose precise relationship with the actual vertebrates is still a matter of debate. For their project, which was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and just published in the American journal PNAS, the researchers analyzed new conodont fossils that date from around the biggest mass extinction event at the boundary between the Permian and Triassic periods.

Provided by University of Zurich