Technology & Science

Ancient giant rodent may have fought like an elephant

The guinea pig once had a supersized cousin - a burly, bison-sized beast that may have fought like an elephant.

Giant tusk-like teeth could withstand huge forces, according to findings in Journal of Anatomy

The giant ancient rodent Josephoartigasia monesi was roughly the size of a bison and far more massive than a person. Its closest living relative is an animal called the pacarana. It was also closely related to guinea pigs. (Andres Rinderknecht and Ernesto Blanco)

The guinea pig once had a supersized cousin – a burly, bison-sized beast that may have fought like an elephant.

The giant rodent Josephoartigasia monesi had huge front teeth, like other rodents. It may have used them for digging or fighting. (James Gurney)

Josephoartigasia Monesi lived about three million years ago in South America, and is known from a single, enormous, half-metre-long skull. Its head alone was the size of an entire beaver — itself considered a rodent of unusual size.

"It's quite a fearsome looking thing," acknowledged Philip Cox, an anatomist at the University of York, in an interview with CBC's As It Happens.

Cox used CT scanning to create a computer model of the skull.

Like other rodents, Josephoartigasia had enormous front teeth.

The animal is known from a single skull half a metre long. ( Andres Rinderknecht and Ernesto Blanco)

Using engineering techniques, Cox predicted that the giant ancient rodent would have had the bite strength of a tiger. But its teeth could actually withstand three times the force applied by biting.

Cox suggested the teeth were likely used for other activities besides just eating. They may have been used for digging – something that naked mole rats use their teeth for — or for fighting. The giant rodent may have bared its tusk-like teeth to defend itself from predators.

Or it may have had fights with others of its species that involved running, open-mouthed, at each other – "maybe in the same way that male elephants clash their tusks together," Cox said.

The findings were published in the Journal of Anatomy.

New research reveals a giant rodent with giant tusk-like teeth: PhilipCox talks to As It Happens 6:06

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