How did piranhas — the legendary freshwater fish with the razor bite — get their telltale teeth? Researchers from Argentina, the United States and Venezuela have uncovered the jawbone of a striking transitional fossil that sheds light on this question. Named Megapiranha paranensis, this previously unknown fossil fish bridges the evolutionary gap between flesh-eating piranhas and their plant-eating cousins.
Present-day piranhas have a single row of triangular teeth, like the blade on a saw, explained the researchers. But their closest relatives â€” a group of fishes commonly known as pacus â€” have two rows of square teeth, presumably for crushing fruits and seeds. “In modern piranhas the teeth are arranged in a single file,” said Wasila Dahdul, a visiting scientist at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in North Carolina. “But in the relatives of piranhas â€” which tend to be herbivorous fishes â€”the teeth are in two rows,” said Dahdul.
Megapiranha shows an intermediate pattern: it’s teeth are arranged in a zig-zag row. This suggests that the two rows in pacus were compressed to form a single row in piranhas. “It almost looks like the teeth are migrating from the second row into the first row,” said John Lundberg, curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and a co-author of the study.