New research suggests that the feeding strategy of Kolponomos, an enigmatic shell-crushing marine predator that lived about 20 million years ago, was strangely similar to a very different kind of carnivore: the saber-toothed cat Smilodon. Scientists at the American Museum of Natural History used high-resolution x-ray imaging and computerized biting simulations to show that even though the two extinct predators likely contrasted greatly in food preference and environment, they shared similar engineering in jaw structure, suitable for anchoring against prey with the lower jaw and forcefully throwing the skull forward to pry loose its food. The study is published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The only known specimens of Kolponomos--primarily skulls and teeth of two species--were recovered from ancient marine deposits along the Pacific coast of Oregon, Washington, and possibly Alaska. Because of its peculiar morphology and the small number of fossils, the animal's place in the evolutionary tree remains a mystery.
"When Kolponomos was first described in the 1960s, it was thought to be a raccoon relative," said Camille Grohé, a National Science Foundation and Frick Postdoctoral Fellow in the American Museum of Natural History's Division of Paleontology and a co-author on the new paper. "But later research on the skull base led some to think it might be a seal or a bear relative instead, and studies of its teeth show that they are very similar in both shape and wear to the teeth in sea otters."
Sea otters pry their prey--hard-shelled marine invertebrates like clams and mussels--off of surfaces using their hands and rock tools, then crush the shells with their teeth or against their chests, again using tools. By studying Kolponomos fossil material from the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and comparative specimens from the American Museum of Natural History, the research team originally set out to test if the extinct predator used otter-like shell-crushing to eat. But the scope of the research expanded after Grohé's collaborator Z. Jack Tseng noticed something curious in parallel to work he was conducting on the saber-toothed cat Smilodon.
"I started seeing a great deal of similarity between the jaws of Kolponomos and Smilodon," said Tseng, a National Science Foundation and Frick Postdoctoral Fellow in the American Museum of Natural History's Division of Paleontology and the lead author on the new paper. "Both of them have a distinctive profile with a deep jaw bone that tapers off toward the back, and both have an expansion of the mastoid processes and the skull's back surface, suggesting large attachment sites for muscles that let the animal move its head powerfully but with control. We definitely didn't expect to bring Smilodon into this study of feeding in a clam-eating marine carnivore, but that's what we ended up doing."