Pre-Historic Shark Fossil Comes Home

photo (8)A unique fossil rock from Atigun Gorge is back in the state after a 29 year detour in Washington, D.C. The rock bears the imprint of teeth from an animal that has not been seen on Earth for about 250 million years.  But the  the story behind the rock and it’s current status as centerpiece of a Seward art exhibit is almost as fascinating as the prehistoric creature which imprinted it.

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Scientists call the animal a Helicoprion but some call it a buzz saw shark. That’s because of the odd placement of teeth in the animal’s lower jaw. They are in the middle of the animal’s mouth, in a single line, curved like the edge of a scimitar.

“This is a real monster, and there’s nothing alive like it today, that has this crazy grouping of teeth that it keeps its whole life. But it was successful, it lived for 8 million years, as a species.”

That’s Leif Tapanila, an expert in the workings of the dental gear on animals that flourished millennia ago. Tapanila says there’s about 151 fossils of this kind in the world. The helicoprion may have gone extinct 250 million years ago, but one day in 1986, grad student Richard Glenn stumbled upon a strange rock on a mapping expedition to the Brooks Range.

“I didn’t know what it was. And I didn’t know if it was important enough that it should be found, recorded, saved, preserved, or if we’d find more. So I left it up there where I found it, for a day, and then I went back up after my advisor came and told me that maybe I should go back and get it. ”

The young Glenn gave the rock to his instructor.

“He’d never seen one before either, so he sent it away to a paleontologist colleague of his, and that’s how it got identified, and then he sent it away and it never came home. ”

It would be almost 30 years before Glenn saw his fossil find again.  The fossil rock ended up at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, where it was mislabled, then stored away. The original curator of the fossil later died, and the fossil rock was forgotten.

photo (7)Enter artist Ray Troll, long known for his imaginative paintings of sea life, and, it turns out, an ancient shark enthusiast. Troll and the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward have partnered on an art exhibit, featuring Troll’s depictions of ancient sharks, and in February of this year, Troll and Richard Glenn crossed paths at a Sea Life Center event. The subject of buzz saw sharks came up, Troll says, and he heard about Glenn’s  fossil find.

“I was pretty excited though. maybe I better follow this up. It would be pretty wonderful to have one from Alaska, especially since this Buzz saw shark show was coming.”

And that triggered a chain of events that brought the fossil home.

“I knew a few folks back at the Smithsonian. I’d met Dave Bohoska, the collections manager before, so I made a special plea with him to find it.”

It took weeks, but finally, a FedEx package showed up with the precious rock inside. Now, gathered around a table, Glenn, Troll and Tapanila look lovingly at the rock in the center.  Definite tooth patterns in a whorl like pattern are set in the rock, and the over head light sets tiny glints of sparkle from it’s surface.

Glenn, who now works for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, and Tapanila, with the University of Idaho, spoke Wednesday at a Geological Society of America meeting at UA Anchorage. Troll joined them for a special presentation of the fossil rock, which now heads to Seward on loan until September. But Glenn says, he’d like the rock to stay in Alaska.

“My dream is to put it on a loan, semi permanent in nature that brings it as close to home as where I found it. And there’s a nice museum about forty miles w est of where this was found that would be a great exhibit for a rocks, fossils of the Brooks Range, in Anaktuvuk Pass, Glenn says.  Troll adds,  “So stay tuned.”

Glenn says the Simon Paneak Museum in Anaktuvuk Pass would be just the place for the only helicoprion fossil ever found in Alaska.

Ray Troll’s art exhibit “Buzz Saw Sharks of Long Ago” will be at the Alaska Sea Life Center through September 7.