‘Godzilla shark’ fossil found in NM

A 300 million-year-old shark fossil discovered in New Mexico is the most complete fossil from the ctenacanth family ever found in North America and represents an entirely new species. (Courtesy of New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Scientists humorously refer to it as the “Godzilla shark,” a newly discovered species whose fossilized remains were found in the Manzano Mountains.

At nearly 7 feet long and weighing at least 200 pounds, its 12 rows of teeth and the 2½-foot-long fin spines on its back were the inspiration for its name.

Although uncovered in 2013, the process of excavation, preparation, research and study took years. It is expected to be put on display at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science by late summer, said museum executive director Margie Marino.

An illustration depicts what Dracopristis hoffmanorum may have looked like as an apex predator in ancient waters 300 million years ago. (Courtesy of New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science)

The Godzilla shark was once the apex predator in the sea around New Mexico. Of course, that was more than 300 million years ago, long before dinosaurs made their appearance “and when New Mexico was sitting smack dab on the equator, had a tropical climate and was part of an archipelago of islands in shallow seas,” Spencer Lucas, curator of paleontology at the natural history museum, said Thursday.

And because of such geologic phenomena as plate tectonics and continental drift, “New Mexico has been more or less drifting northward ever since,” he said.

That explains why the fossilized remains of other aquatic creatures have been found in New Mexico, although the discovery of the Godzilla shark is that much more remarkable because nearly the entire fossilized remains were recovered.

“Sharks don’t have a bony skeleton and, once you get away from their teeth, their skeleton is basically cartilage,” Lucas said.

Cartilage, being much softer and more fragile than bone, usually disintegrates long before it has a chance to be fossilized and preserved, resulting in very few complete ancient shark fossils worldwide, he said.

The formidable creature has been formally named Dracopristis (Latin for dragon shark) hoffmanorum (in honor of the family who allowed researchers to explore their private quarry).

“It’s the biggest shark that’s ever been found in New Mexico for that geologic time,” Lucas said, “and certainly the most important fossil shark that’s ever been found in New Mexico.”

The cartilaginous skeleton, about 90% intact, “gives us a look at the anatomy of this animal in a way that we can hardly look at with other sharks. Almost all the other sharks that were living then we only know from their teeth,” he said.

Lucas was among a group of scientists participating in a museum conference that focused on rocks, and plant and animal fossils from the late Pennsylvanian period. Near the end of a visit to the quarry in the Manzano Mountains, research member and shark expert John-Paul Hodnett, a graduate student at Northern Arizona University at the time, found something unusual.

“I slipped one chunk of shale with a pocket knife and saw what looked like a bone from an amphibian or a reptile, or something like that,” he said Thursday.

The piece was left with researchers at the museum and was later identified as the nose of a shark. A museum team subsequently returned to the quarry and completed the excavation. They worked on the fossils for seven years, cleaning, stabilizing and studying them with the aid of a CT scan conducted at Presbyterian Rust Medical Center.

Hodnett, a paleontologist and program coordinator at Dinosaur Park in Maryland, meanwhile was comparing the fossils with other sharks that he was studying. He determined it was part of a family of sharks called ctenacanth, or combed spine sharks, but an entirely new species.

Hodnett called discovery of the Godzilla, or dragon, shark not only lucky, but also one of the most significant of his career, as well as the most complete ancient shark fossil he has ever uncovered.

“I probably should have played the lottery on that day,” he said.

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