Home > Nature, Research, Science > Unfurling the Mystery of Helicoprion

Unfurling the Mystery of Helicoprion

A more recent version of Helicoprion with a lower jaw that could have been snapped out like a party favor. Redrawn from Long’s restoration and from Lebedev, 2009.

“Reconstructing the anatomy of prehistoric sharks isn’t easy. With few exceptions – an exquisitely-preserved body fossil here, some calcified bits of skeleton there – teeth make up the majority of the shark fossil record.

When those teeth come from a relatively recent species with close living relatives, it is not difficult to imagine what the extinct species might have looked like. The further back in time you go, though, the more bizarre sharks become. Sometimes teeth are not enough, and one especially unusual set of teeth has vexed paleontologists for over a century.

At first sight, the teeth didn’t look like they belonged to a shark at all. Coiled upon itself in a circular whorl, the bizarre tooth row superficially resembled the shells of extinct cousins of nautilus and squid called ammonites.

After studying tooth whorls found in the Ural Mountains, though, the Russian geologist Alexander Petrovich Karpinsky recognized them for what they were. In 1899 he described them under the name Helicoprion as the remains of an ancient shark. Just how they fit in the shark’s mouth was another matter altogether.”

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