A Prehistoric Mammal with Blood Red Teeth



Barbatodon transylvanicus, the oldest fossil mammal with red teeth. (photo: Thierry Smith, RBINS)
A Prehistoric Mammal with Blood Red Teeth
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Charlotte Degueldre

Our colleague and palaeontologist Thierry Smith has discovered a 70 million year old mammal with red teeth in Transylvania, Romania. Iron strengthened Barbatodon transylvanicus’ incisors and molars and gave them their red colour. Barbatodon is the oldest known fossil mammal with iron in its teeth and its skull is the most complete mammal fossil from the Upper Cretaceous period in Europe.

Thierry Smith, a palaeontologist from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) and Vlad Codrea, his Romanian counterpart from the University of Babès-Bolyai in Cluj-Napoca, have just described a primitive mammal that lived amongst dinosaurs 70 million years ago and had blood red patches on its tooth enamel.

Barbatodon transylvanicus ‘the tooth from the Barbat in Transylvania’, was unearthed in 2004 in Pui, Romania, beside the river Barbat, about 200km from Vlad Dracula’s medieval castle. The comparisons with the legendary bloodthirsty prince stop there. The rat-sized animal didn’t drink blood. “This rodent-like mammal had long incisors and ate very hard food, like grain,” explains Smith. “Thanks to the spectrometric analyses carried out using an electron microscope, we observed that the red enamel was composed of 6.88% iron, which provides teeth with protection from wear and tear. This was particularly important for the animal as it couldn’t grow another set of teeth”. Barbatodon is the oldest known animal with iron in its teeth to date. This adaptation against abrasion is only observed today in rodents and shrews.

An Island Animal

During the upper Cretaceous period, southern Europe was an archipelago. Hateg, in the Carpathian Mountains was one of the islands in the group. 70 million years ago Hateg was home to Barbatodon and primitive dwarf dinosaurs. “Islands are often a refuge for primitive species,” says Smith, “They survive longer on them than on the continent, and often natural selection on islands favours smaller species, like the Flores Man or Sicilian pigmy elephants.”

A Successful Group

This red-toothed mammal was part of the Multituberculates family, whose name comes from the bumpy surface of their molars. This very primitive, successful group survived the mass extinction that took place at the end of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago, as well as major global warming 10 million years later, which saw the emergence of modern mammals (including horses, cats and monkeys). However, 35 million years ago the Multituberculates died out after surviving for an impressive 150 million years.

Barbatodon transylvanicus is described in the open access journal PLOS ONE.


Click on the photo for more pictures.

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