WASHINGTON — Perhaps it was one of those eureka moments, when the scientists realized they had discovered a new dinosaur with mouth parts designed to vacuum up food.
The 110 million-year-old plant eater, discovered in the Sahara Desert, was to be unveiled Thursday by the National Geographic Society.
Discoverer Paul Sereno named the elephant-sized animal Nigersaurus taqueti, an acknowledgment of the African country Niger and a French paleontologist, Philippe Taquet.
Sereno, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence and paleontologist at the University of Chicago, said the first evidence of Nigersaurus was found in the 1990s and now researchers have been able to reconstruct its skull and skeleton.
While Nigersaurus' mouth is shaped like the wide intake slot of a vacuum, it has something lacking in most cleaners — hundreds of tiny, sharp teeth to grind up its food.
The 30-foot-long Nigersaurus had a feather-light skull held close to the ground to graze like an ancient cow. Sereno described it as a younger cousin of the North American dinosaur Diplodicus.
Nigersaurus however was not able to lift its head much about its neck, which meant that it grazed similar to ancient cows rather than eating like a reptilian giraffe that feasted from taller plants.
Sereno said the find is important because it shows for the first time an animal that has all of its teeth in the front of its mouth rather than mostly in the front as they've found with other dinosaurs. Nigersaurus is also unique in its ability to replace teeth. A CT scan of its jaw shows the dinosaur was able to replace worn out teeth about nine times.
"Moving most of your teeth forward is not new with this animal, moving all of your teeth forward is. Developing a tooth battery is. You have to put all of these things into an evolutionary perspective when you do that you realize we are sampling a ground groveling radiation from the Jurassic."
Its broad muzzle contained more than 50 columns of teeth lined up tightly along the front edge of tis jaw. Behind each tooth more were lined up as replacements when one broke off.
Using CT scans the researchers were able study the inside of the animal's skull where the orientation of canals in the organ that helps keep balance disclosed the habitual low pose of the head, they reported.
Nigersaurus also had a backbone consisting of more air than bone.
"The vertebrae are so paper-thin that it is difficult to imagine them coping with the stresses of everyday use — but we know they did it, and they did it well," Jeffrey Wilson, assistant professor at the University of Michigan and an expedition team member, said in a statement.
The dinosaur's anatomy and lifestyle were to be detailed in the Nov. 21 issue of journal PLoS ONE, the online journal from the Public Library of Science, and in the December issue of National Geographic magazine.
The first bones of Nigersaurus were picked up in the 1950s by French paleontologists, but the species was not named at that time. Sereno and his team honored this early work by naming the species after Taquet.
The research was partly funded by National Geographic.