Conodonts are enigmatic ancient animals that existed for 300 million years before disappearing shortly after the first dinosaurs appeared. Compared to larger, more spectacular fossils, these tiny eel-like organisms don’t attract much public attention. However, despite their abundance across the globe, they remain mysterious, capturing the imagination of paleontologists for more than a century.
In a study recently published in the journal Paleobiologyan international team of paleontologists has sought to shed light on the long-standing question of conodont food choices by analyzing chemistrycal composition of tooth-like fossils of several species. The research was led by Dr. David Terrill, then a doctoral student in the Faculty of Science, who traveled to Germany to collaborate in the development of this new approach.
Conodonts left behind tooth-like fossils that are found in great abundance in sea rocks. The exceptional diversity of their forms and structures, or morphology, has made them a natural laboratory for evolution. Conodonts are found in sea rocks all over the world, from China to Iran to the Arctic. They are one of the oldest lineages of vertebrates and are even considered to be one of the first vertebrates.
The worldwide abundance of their millimetric teeth, their rapid evolution and their their used to estimate the age of sea rocks throughout their existence have made them one of the most useful fossils in the world. The fossils, who come in a variety of shapes, from the simple “cones” from which they get their name (conodont = cone tooth) to broad platforms resembling molars, bars and delicate blades.
Despite decades of intensive study in academia and industry, researchers have remained intrigued by the function of these teeth and how they fit into the food chain.
The equipped with authors from Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden have compared species individual ecological communties extract of rocks more than 400 million years ago from the island of Gotland, Sweden.
The authors adopted a method to establish the diet from the toolbox of archaeologists: they examined the relative abundance of chemical elements including strontium, barium and calcium, which are impacted by diet, to determine whether different species of conodonts living together in the same environment would have different food preferences.
Wide variety of food preferences
The researchers found distinct chemical compositions for various species of conodonts, indicating a variety of dietary preferences and niches. These broad dietary preferences likely contributed to the great diversity of conodont tooth shapes and may have been a key factor in the longevity of the group..
Conodonts have had enormous ecological success, to surviveing multiple mass extinctions, including the largest in the world at the end of the Permian Periodan event that wiped out over 95% of all marine species.
As anyone who has attended a large dinner party knows, there is always a wide variety of dining options, but with limited quantities. Developing a strategy to maximize one’s consumption of the most appealing dishes is paramount to returning home well-nourished, and this principle can also be extended to older conodonts.
Adaptation to eating different foods has been one of the most powerful evolutionary drivers, and this study shows that conodonts may have been particularly good at finding their own restoration strategies and ecological niches.