(CNN) – Kentucky of Mammoth Cave National Park it is very distant from the ocean, but newly discovered fossils suggest that the area was once teeming with sharks.
Scientists have identified the remains of 15-20 different shark species in the depths of the cave, including part of the head of a large white-sized monster partially protruding from a wall, paleontologist John-Paul Hodnett told Paleonca.
Sharks lived about 330 million years ago in what is known as the late Mississippian geological period, when much of North America was covered by the oceans. When they died, their remains were enclosed in sediments which eventually became the limestone where the cave was formed.
“There is hardly ever any record of shark teeth coming from these rocks. So it was exciting, sad Hodnett.” So this is a brand new shark record from a particular time layer. “
Mammoth Cave scientists Rick Olson and Rick Toomey were mapping a remote part of the cave when they started seeing shark fossils, according to Vincent Santucci, senior paleontologist at the National Park Service.
They sent photos of their discovery to Hodnett, because he is an expert on paleozoic sharks. He works at Dinosaur Park in Maryland, a fossil site near Washington, DC, and supports research for the National Park Service.
There were several shark teeth in the photos, Hodnett said, but he also saw the cartilage he thought might be a shark skeleton. It is quite rare because cartilage is softer than bone, so it is not often kept.
When the scientist visited the cave in November, he realized that he was looking at something much bigger.
“It turns out that it’s actually not a skeleton, it’s actually only a part of the head. And the head itself is quite large,” said Hodnett.
You can see the part of the shark’s jaw where it would stick to the skull and the end that would have been its chin, Hodnett said. Part of the center of the jaw is not visible, but estimated that it would have been about 2 1/2 feet long.
By studying his teeth, Hodnett was able to determine that the fossil was part of a species called Saivodus striatus which was about the size of a modern great white shark – about 16-20 feet in length.
He said they don’t know how much of the shark is still buried in the rock.
“It’s super exciting, but it’s not exactly the easiest thing to study,” said Hodnett. “Caves are a very special environment, so it’s not ideal for removing large pieces of rock from it and damaging the internal environment in this way.”
Getting to this part of the cave is a challenge in its own right. Hodnett said they had to crawl on their hands and knees for about a quarter of a mile to reach their prize.
“It will be very difficult to bring the appropriate equipment there to properly dig the sample out of the cave,” he said.
Hodnett said he is still studying the fossil specimens he has collected from the cave, but he has already learned a lot. Estimated to have found the fossils of about 150 different sharks from 15 to 20 different species.
Most of the late Mississippian fossil record was found in Europe, so this could answer many questions about what was going on in North America.
“We literally just scratched the surface and the sharks are coming out of that spot,” said Hodnett. “So hopefully, with more fieldwork, we’ll have another good batch of specimens to help get at least some richer diversity.”
The researchers plan to present their preliminary results in October at a meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Santucci said the fossils were found in a remote part of the park that people cannot visit without a special permit, but they don’t want to reveal the exact location.
Eventually, he said, they will show fossils in the park and online. But, he says, the project has just begun.
“It’s amazing how quickly we’ve already found some interesting things,” said Santucci.