Rick Olson and Rick Toomey, two experts of central Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave tasked with mapping the structure, contacted Vitor Santucci, the senior paleontologist for the US National Park Service, after stumbling upon a fossilized figure that jutted out of the wall, according to the Louisville Courier Journal.
Santucci then got in touch with colleague John-Paul Hodnett of Maryland’s Dinosaur Park, who paid a visit to the cave in November 2019 as part of the Mammoth Cave National Park Fossil Shark Research Project.
"One set of photos showed a number of shark teeth associated with large sections of fossilized cartilage, suggesting there might be a shark skeleton preserved in the cave," he said, recounting the initial photos taken by Olson and Toomey.
Hodnett revealed that the fossilized remains in question belonged to the Saivodus striatus shark species of the Late Mississippian period some 330 to 340 million years ago. It’s predicted to be approximately the size of a great white shark, ranging anywhere from 11 to 21 feet in length.
"I wasn't exactly sure what I was going to see in the cave during my trip in November," the paleontologist confessed. "When we got to our target specimen, my mind was blown."
According to Hodnett, members of the project determined that they had found what appear to be several teeth belong to the shark, its lower jaw and skull cartilage. The latter finding is most monumental due to the fact that shark skeletons - which are made of cartilage - are rarely preserved in fossils.
The paleontologist credits the limestone’s slow erosion as the reason for the shark teeth’s preservation.
"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," Hodnett said. "It's like finding a missing puzzle piece to a very big picture."
However, scientists have found more than just the remains of Saivodus striatus. The project has uncovered more than 100 individual specimens from the cave, including additional teeth and dorsal fins from a number of shark species. Being that the national park is home to the longest known cave system on Earth, at over 400 miles, Hodnett believes that the team has “just scratched the surface.”
Santucci told the Courier Journal that although the park wants the public to benefit from the information obtained from the cave, officials “have a duty to protect these non-renewable resources” and will not disclose the fossils’ exact locations out of fear of vandalism or theft.