After a visit to my dentist in Albuquerque, I headed downtown to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, where I viewed some serious teeth and some interesting art that reminded me of sci-fi creature classics, the horror movies broadcast on the Turner Classic Movie Channel. The teeth belonged to pre-historic sharks that make Jaws – the famous movie fish – look like an angry guppy, which rhymes with puppy, another critter with teeth but not teeth like this. These teeth are actually fossils that belong to prehistoric whorl-toothed sharks, (Helicoprion) that had what appears to be buzz saws in their mouths. They lived 270-million years ago.
My cousins, Jim and Laura Helmich, working as junior docents at the museum during the summer months, told me about Buzzsaw Sharks of Long Ago, an exhibition brought to the NMMNHS from the Idaho Museum of Natural History. The exhibit features a wide array of fossils of spiraling coils of razor-sharp shark teeth.
Of special interest is a portion of a tooth whorl found by a NMMNHS volunteer east of Socorro in rocks from the Pennsylvanian age. This partial whorl has five large, serrated teeth. It’s the most complete fossil of a buzz saw shark found in New Mexico.
The exhibit includes the sketches and musings of Alaskan artist Ray Troll whose art tracks the story of the bizarre prehistoric whorl-tooth shark and how scientists learned more about the creature. Troll’s art reminds the viewer of a sci-fi classic, one of those old movies that’s funny and scary.
Another artist, sculptor Gary Staab, has crafted life sized sculptures of the shark bursting through the walls of the museum. A short documentary is also part of the exhibit.
Over the years, through reconstructions, scientists have speculated where the teeth whorls resided in the pre-historic shark’s mouth. Up front? In back? With new teeth replacing old teeth in the whorl? Finally, what caused them to become extinct? Maybe the sharks wore themselves out flossing? Better still, maybe they forgot to floss.
The exhibit closes on September 5th.