65 Million year old ancient fossil shark discovered in Alabama by McWane Science Center

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Modren Sandtiger Shark. The newly discovered 65 million year old Mennerotodus mackayi looks similar. Photo courtesy of McWane Science Center

This week, a team of scientists from Birmingham’s McWane Science Center, South Carolina and Auburn announced the discovery of two ancient fossil shark species from the southeastern U.S. that lived during the Paleogene Period, roughly 65 and 35 million years ago.

That’s not a misprint…. 35 million to 65 million year old sharks. 

The naming of the two new species was based on hundreds of isolated teeth that were discovered in south Alabama and central Georgia.

The Oldest Shark Named After McWane’s First President and CEO

The extinct shark species was named for John L. Mackay, the initial President and CEO of McWane Science Center and is in honor of Mackay’s lifelong career in furthering informal education. Photo courtesy of McWane Science Center

The two new species are members of the same genus, Mennerotodus, a group of extinct sharks that were known previously from only Europe and Asia. 

The older species, Mennerotodus mackayi, was discovered in Alabama and lived during the Paleocene Epoch. According to Jun Ebersole, Director of Collections at the McWane Science Center  “this new species appeared just after the extinction of the dinosaurs, and based on the number of teeth we recovered, it was likely one of the more common species in the ancient Gulf of Mexico 65 million years ago”. 

The extinct shark species was named for John L. Mackay, the initial President and CEO of McWane Science Center and is in honor of Mackay’s lifelong career in furthering informal education.

The second prehistoric shark species Mennerotodus parmleyi was named for Dennis Parmley, retired faculty member at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, GA, in honor of his contributions to the study of paleontology in Georgia. It was discovered in sediment layers dating to 35 million years ago, during the Bartonian Stage of the Eocene Epoch. 

What Do They Look Like?

Mennerotodus mackayi – shark teeth fossils. Photo courtesy of McWane Science Center

Before naming these two species, the team of scientists spent months reconstructing the dentitions of these ancient sharks from hundreds of isolated teeth and comparing them to modern species. 

“By piecing together and examining the dentitions of these new shark species, we were able to determine that they are closely related to modern Sandtiger Sharks, so close in fact, that we were able to use modern Sandtiger jaws to reconstruct them,” said David Cicimurri, one of the team members and Curator of Natural History, South Carolina State Museum in Columbia.

McWane’s Ebersole added, “Like in modern Sandtiger Sharks, the front teeth in the mouths of the fossil species are very tall and fang-like.These teeth often project out of the mouth, giving the shark a snaggle-toothed appearance, and were perfect for feeding on fishes, crabs, squids, and even other sharks.”

Based on lengths of modern Sandtiger Sharks, it is likely the fossil species grew to lengths of up to 10 feet.

Alabama is Number One in Fossil Diversity

Seeing the McWane Science Center’s name on world renown scientific studies may surprise local residents who only know McWane by its state of the art science education exhibits and programs, an IMAX Theater and gift shop. Thanks to Mackey’s efforts, when the science center was established two decades ago it maintained the Red Mountain Museum’s fossil collection and expanded it.  Ebersole was hired by Mackey.  Since then, McWane has conducted cutting edge scientific research.

In an interview with Bham Now, Ebersole described fossil research in the the state of Alabama as ideal, because it is the center of fossil sharks and bony fishes diversity in North America..

“Going back 325 million years ago to the Ice Age – 10,000 years ago – Alabama has probably the most complete shark and fish (fossil) record in North America. We are well kept secret. We are number one in modern biodiversity and paleo/fossil diversity.”

Why Does this All Matter?

Jun Ebersole Director of Collections Via – McWane Center

So why should we care about two newly identified prehistoric sharks, other than it’s pretty darn cool. The McWane Science Center listed the following reasons in a fact sheet released this week.

Why are these sharks important?

  • The two new fossil species help to increase our knowledge of the known fossil shark diversity along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
  • These species represent the first occurrences of the genus Mennerotodus in North America.
  • These shark species are ancestors of modern Sandtiger Sharks, showing this family of sharks was present in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic Coast as early as 65 million years ago.
  • Mennerotodus mackayi is the oldest species in the genus Mennerotodus, suggesting the genus originated in the ancient Gulf of Mexico and later moved to other parts of the world, thus evolving into the other known species.

Want to learn more? Ebersole and his team’s research on the two newly discovered ancient sharks can be found under the title:

Two new species of Mennerotodus Zhelezko, 1994 (Chondrichthyes: Lamniformes; Odontaspididae), from the Paleogene of the southeastern United States, 

Access the journal Fossil Record at https://fr.copernicus.org/

Stay tuned for more new discoveries by the McWane Science Center

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Pat Byington
Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.
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