In the cetacean world, teeth are an important tool for capturing and killing prey. The diversity of tooth shapes and sizes in different cetacean species never ceases to amaze scientists. Bones of a saber-toothed dolphin, which had unusually long front teeth and an exotic neck, were discovered in New Zealand.
Paleontologists have studied almost the entire skull of the animal with many long teeth sitting in the wells of the oblong flat jaws. They named it Nihohae matakoi, which means “sharp-faced, chopping teeth” in Maori. Judging by its thin snout and the absence of abrasion marks on its teeth, the Nihohae was a hunter of soft-bodied prey, which it wounded and stunned with sharp turns of its head.
According to a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, the New Zealand “saber-toothed” dolphin was a relatively harmless animal and could hardly use its strange jaws to defend itself against predators. This raises the question of why it needed them: small fish and small squids can be killed without such “tusks”. Perhaps, in addition to participating in feeding, the abnormally enlarged teeth could serve as a mating display, attracting partners of the opposite sex.
It is interesting that fusion of cervical vertebrae in modern dolphins deprived them of this ancient method of food extraction: with “stiff” neck it is difficult to move head from side to side. So, today the teeth of the majority of cetaceans are relatively small and completely hidden in the mouth. Only narwhals have their long tusk-like fangs sticking out in front of their muzzle, performing a variety of functions.
A new species of fossil dolphin found in New Zealand adds to the group of exotic dolphin “cogs”. Diversity in the shape and size of cetacean teeth is the result of natural selection over millions of years. Each species evolved its own unique way of hunting and defense, resulting in different tooth shapes and sizes.