This 65-million-year-old shark survived mass extinction

Palaeontologist Jun Ebersole was in for a surprise as he rummaged through fossil collections at the Geological Survey in Alabama.

“A few years ago, I was looking through the historical fossil collections […] and came across a small box of shark teeth that were collected over 100 years ago in Wilcox County,” says Ebersole, Director of Collections at McWane Science Center.

The accidental discovery turned out to be a new species of Palaeocene shark.

Details of find are published in Fossil Record. The species has been named Palaeohypotodus bizzocoi. Palaeohypotodus meaning “ancient small-eared tooth” for the needle-like fangs on the sides of its teeth, and bizzocoi after the late archaeologist Dr Bruce Bizzoco, Dean of Shelton State Community College and a long-term volunteer at McWane Science Center.

The ancient shark is significant, having survived during the Palaeocene – about 65 million years ago – a period of mass extinction when more than 75% of life on Earth became extinct.

At that time, the southern half of Alabama was covered by shallow tropical to sub-tropical ocean, says Palaeontologist T. Lynn Harrell Jr, Fossil Collections Curator at the Geological Survey of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

“Shark discoveries like this one give us tremendous insights into how ocean life recovers after major extinction events and also allows us to potentially forecast how global events, like climate change, affect marine life today,” says Harrell.

The shark’s teeth are also unique and unlike any living shark.

The discovery is part of an ongoing project documenting Alabama’s fossil fisheries, which has so far identified 400 unique species of fossil sharks and bony fishes. The work is being led by Ebersole and David Cicimurri, Curator of Natural History, South Carolina State Museum. 

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