I bet you thought Johnny Depp had it bad, having scissors instead of hands. Well, imagine having a buzz saw instead of teeth. Or rather, a buzz saw made entirely of teeth. Sounds like a horror movie, doesn’t it?
But what you’re actually imagining is the everyday life of Helicoprion, a prehistoric ratfish who lived 310 million years ago in the late Carboniferous. Oddly enough, the idea of having a circling death-wheel of teeth (or tooth whorl, as scientists call it) is actually nothing new.
The first Helicoprion fossil was described by Russian geologist Alexander Karpinsky in 1899. There were just two problems the discoverer faced: where the tooth whorl was located on the body, and why this 20-foot fish-of-death had a spiral of deadly fish-teeth at all!
In the century since its discovery, scientists had placed Helicoprion’s teeth all over its body— as a spiral jutting off the tip of the nose, as spines protruding from its back, or as a spiral of ever replacing teeth dangling from its lower jaw, among other (sometimes more fanciful than scientific) ideas.
In 2013, thanks to CT scans of well-preserved fossils, it was finally decided that the tooth whorl was located in Helicoprion’s lower jaw, much like the image above.
But how Helicoprion used this built-in toothy yoyo remained a mystery until September 2, 2014, when biologist Jason Ramsay and the team from 2013 published their findings and finally answered the second question.
According to the researchers, Helicoprion ate by biting its prey, rather than suction feeding, as had been previously proposed. Its favorite dishes were probably prehistoric squid, octopus, and their spiral-shelled cousins, the nautilus. This is where a toothy wheel of death comes in handy. By biting down at the right angle, Helicoprion would have been able to pull a prehistoric nautilus out of its shell, into his terrifying carnival ride of teeth, and straight down his throat all with one fluid movement.
I, on the other hand, have problems peeling an orange. And while I enjoy my orange, I’ll ponder my contentment in learning about another prehistoric mystery, solved by science.
If you’d like to learn more, click on the image above or read the original paper.
Submitted by Nick V, Discoverer.