When paleontologists from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science uncovered the fossil of a 6.7-foot-long shark in 2013, they began calling it “Godzilla.” The nickname fit the prehistoric beast’s unusual features, including 12 rows of short, squat teeth and two long, reptilian spines on its back.
Now, after seven years of research to catalogue its various characteristics, the scientists have determined that the fossil represents a new species. Its official name is Dracopristis hoffmanorum, the museum announced in a statement last week. The first part of its name means “dragon shark” in Latin, and the latter hoffmanorum is a tribute to the Hoffman family that owns the quarry where the fossil was discovered.
“It’s the biggest shark that’s ever been found in New Mexico for that geologic time,” says Spencer Lucas, the curator of paleontology at the museum, to Rick Nathanson at the Albuquerque Journal. “And certainly the most important fossil shark that’s ever been found in New Mexico.”
Ancient shark specialist John-Paul Hodnett, now a program coordinator for the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission’s Dinosaur Park, found the first piece of the dragon shark fossil while sifting through limestone fragments in a quarry in the Manzano Mountains of central New Mexico. The first fragment looked like a piece of a limb bone, which struck Hodnett as unusual because although the region is well-known for fossils of plants and animals from the Pennsylvanian period, they are rarely so large.
The next day, Hodnett met with Tom Suazo, the museum’s fossil preparator, who showed him several other fossils that paleontologists had found nearby. The evidence of fin spines suggested it was an ancient shark. Years of additional research and preservation would reveal the find as the most complete shark fossil of its kind. Additional work at the fossil's site uncovered an unusual amount of detail about the ancient shark. Excavation turned up the shark's lower jaw with 12 rows of teeth that were first hidden by sediment, which Hodnett found using an angled light technique that reveals lower layers, reports Cedar Attanasio at the Associated Press.
Most ancient sharks, including the gigantic megalodon, are only known by fossilized teeth and vertebrae.
“It is very rare to find skeletal material of ancient sharks, let alone a complete skeleton that also preserved the body outline and other soft tissue impressions,” says Hodnett to Harry Baker at LiveScience. “That and it being a new species was also amazing and unique.”
He adds to the Albuquerque Journal, “I probably should have played the lottery on that day.”
The dragon shark falls in a family of sharks called Ctenacanths, which evolved separately from modern sharks about 390 million years ago. The most striking difference between Ctenacanths and modern sharks is the size of their jaws: Ctenacanth jaws are larger and less flexible, Hodnett tells LiveScience.
During the dragon shark’s era, eastern New Mexico was submerged under a seaway. The dragon shark probably would have lived in shallow coastal waters, and the researchers suspect that it hunted crustaceans, fish and smaller sharks. Its short, wide teeth would have been “great for grasping and crushing prey rather than piercing prey,” says Hodnett to the Associated Press.
The shape of its hind fins and tail suggest that the dragon shark lurked near the bottom of ancient lagoons, and the large spines on its back may have protected it from predators. But the researchers are now searching for more fossils of the same species to better understand how it lived.
“I am also a big fan of the Godzilla film franchise,” says Hodnett to Live Science. “So when the features of this shark came to light, I thought it was the perfect nickname.”