Fossilized Bones Led To The Discovery Of A Previously Undetected Species Of Shark

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Paleontologists Fred Smith and Mike Everhart are searching for prehistoric bones on a hillside in the middle of Kansas in 2010. It’s a place where Everhart has previously found bones from a plesiosaur, a giant marine reptile extinct for many millions of years. But on this day the soil yields only tiny bone fragments. Then Smith uncovers what he thinks is a piece of fossilized tree. But Everhart realizes that this is no tree branch. It’s something much more exciting.

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In fact, it emerged that what Smith had discovered was actually the first of an array of bones later uncovered. Eventually these included 61 vertebrae, 134 teeth and 23 fish scales. This was no ancient fossilized tree; it was a cache of shark bones dating back more than 90 million years. This shark had swum in the Western Interior Seaway which cleaved North America into two parts during an era known as the Late Cretaceous Period, which lasted from 144 to 66 million years ago.

Image: Michael Everhart/Sternberg Museum of Natural History via DePaul University

At first Everhart and an expert he’d called in, paleobiology professor Kenshu Shimada, believed the Kansas shark was an example of the Cretodus crassidens species. Fossils of this shark had previously been discovered and described in England as well as in North America. But that initial judgment would prove to be wide of the mark.

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In fact, this shark was something a whole lot more exciting. It turned out to be a previously undiscovered species, entirely unknown to science. And it was a monster. The specimen that Everhart and Smith came across would have been some 17 feet long. And extrapolating from the fossilized bones, the scientists were able to say that it could have grown to a length of 22 feet. Today, the largest similar fish alive is the Great White Shark, which can get to nearly 20 feet.

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Now that they knew it was a new species they gave it a name: Cretodus houghtonorum. And it turned out that the fossils were the remains of not one but three sharks, all from different species. Of the second two, one was from the Squalicorax family, the other from the hybodont group. Speaking to Newsweek magazine in November 2019, Everhart said, “Circumstantially, we think the shark possibly fed on the much smaller hybodont and was in turn scavenged by Squalicorax after its death.” It was, it seems, a shark-eat-shark world.