Ozarkodinid conodonts were one of the most successful groups of agnathan vertebrates. Only the oropharyngeal feeding apparatus of conodonts was mineralized, and the skeletal elements were generally disarticulated on the death and decay of the body. Occasionally, however, they were preserved in association as ‘natural assemblages’, fossilized in situ after post–mortem collapse of the apparatus. From analysis of element arrangement in natural assemblages of Idiognathodus from the Pennsylvanian of Illinois we have produced a precise scale model of the feeding apparatus of ozarkodinid conodonts. At the front lay an axial Sa element, flanked by two groups of four close-set elongate Sb and Sc elements which were inclined obliquely inwards and forwards; above these elements lay a pair of arched and inward pointing M elements. Behind the S-M array lay transversely oriented and bilaterally opposed Pb and Pa elements.
Our model sheds new light on food acquisition in conodonts. We propose that the anterior S and M elements of ozarkodinid conodonts were attached to cartilaginous plates. In order for the animal to feed, these plates were first everted, and then drawn back and upward over the anterior edge of an underlying cartilage. These movements produced a highly effective grasping action, the cusps and denticles of the elements converging to grab and impale any food item that lay anterior to the open array. According to this hypothesis, the anterior part of the conodont apparatus is comparable to, and possibly homologous with, the lingual apparatus of extant agnathans; the elements themselves, however, have no direct homologues.