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Ancient Jaws! 330 Million-yr-old Shark’s Head Found in Kentucky Cave

Looking closer at a shark's head
Looking closer at a shark's head

Fossils from an ancient shark’s head have been found just when you thought it was safe to go back in the… cave? Paleontologists in Kentucky have made a surprising discovery, in the fearsome form of a fossilized shark’s head. The prehistoric Jaws roamed the seas approx. 330 million years ago!

The Mammoth Cave National Park isn’t the first place people think of when it comes to marine predators – indeed, it’s the first evidence of sharks ever found in that area.

Two Ricks – surnames Olson and Toomey – were busy mapping out what Newsweek calls, “the longest known cave system on Earth—one that extends for more than 400 miles, according to the National Park Service.” Instead of checking out grid references, they found themselves gawping at dead predators. Different species of shark were on display, with one mysterious exception. Sticking out of the rock were skull cartilage, a lower jaw and of course a few teeth unlike anything seen before.


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Of course where there is a fossil sea bed, there are fossil sharks 😁🦈

A post shared by John-Paul Hodnett (@desertsabertooth) on

“When we got to our target specimen my mind was blown,” says expert John-Paul Hodnett, quoted by the New York Post. Hodnett was despatched from Dinosaur Park in Maryland to meet the mappers, after images were received by the National Park Service’s senior paleontologist Vincent Santucci.


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Shark fossils from today’s field work

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The partial ancient shark’s head is thought to belong to ‘Saivodus striatus’, an ancient version of the Great White that could have been 21 feet long. What’s even more incredible is how the remains survived at all. A shark’s sturdy chompers rank among the most common fossil discoveries. Its skeleton on the other hand is made from cartilage, which tends to decompose and be lost to time.


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Shark fossils of Mammoth Cave National Park

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As Hodnett explains to the Louisville Courier Journal, “Most significantly, the majority of the shark fossils we discovered come from a layer of rock that extends from Missouri to Virginia but never documented the presence of sharks, until now”. He regards this epic and ancient shark’s head find as “a missing puzzle piece to a very big picture”.

How did a massive shark wind up in Kentucky? During the Late Mississippian period, where Saivodus striatus is believed to have roamed, the state was very different. For starters it was underwater, with a shallow tropical sea providing the perfect habitat for hungry sharks.

Olson and Toomey’s discovery has led to 100 more specimens being spotted in the caves. Evidence has been posted on social media, but if people want to get up close and personal they may have a problem. Security is paramount.

The prospect of light-fingered fossil hunters means the National Park Service is staying tight-lipped about where exactly the remains were found. “We want the public to benefit from the scientific information,” says Santucci, quoted by the Courier Journal, “but at the same time we have a duty to protect these non-renewable resources.”

The find has parallels with what happened in Kansas 2010, when a previously unknown shark species was identified via its 91 million year old remains. A member of a group excavating a ranch got bored and went further afield. According to paleontologist Mike Everhart he “came back carrying a large concretion that had circular-shaped objects on both ends. He thought it was a fossilized tree limb and didn’t believe me at first when I told him they were shark vertebrae.” (Newsweek)

Related Article: Going Inside Megalodons – The Ancient Giant Shark that Continues to Fascinate

Much like Saivodus striatus it was comparable in size to a Great White, and named ‘Cretodus houghtonorum’. “As important ecological components in marine ecosystems, understanding about sharks in the past and present is critical to evaluate the roles they have played in their environments and biodiversity through time,” says Kenshu Shimada of DePaul University, Illinois, “and more importantly how they may affect the future marine ecosystem if they become extinct”.

Back in Kentucky, Hodnett and the team are putting together a report for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Their meeting takes place in October in Cincinnati, where the cave predator’s legacy will no doubt be fully explored.