The fossilized remains of at least 40 different shark species as well as their relatives have been discovered in Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky with 6 of those belonging to never-before-found species. This is such a huge discovery that researchers have called the location “one of the most diverse Mississippian shark faunas in North America.”
It was a team of cave specialists, paleontologists, and park rangers who made the huge find during an ongoing paleontological resources inventory that started back in November of 2019. The six newly discovered species, which includes large predators as well as small bottom-feeders, may date back more than 325 million years when the limestone of the Mammoth Cave System formed during the Late Paleozoic Era which is also known as the Mississippian Period.
Fossil shark specialist John-Paul Hodnett, who is a paleontologist from the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, stated, “I am absolutely amazed at the diversity of sharks we see while exploring the passages that make up Mammoth Cave.”
He went on say, “We can hardly move more than a couple of feet as another tooth or spine is spotted in the cave ceiling or wall. We are seeing a range of different species of chondrichthyans [cartilaginous fish] that fill a variety of ecological niches, from large predators to tiny little sharks that lived amongst the crinoid [sea lily] forest on the seafloor that was their habitat.”
While the majority of the remains found in the cave consisted of fin spines as well as teeth, two partial cartilaginous skeletons were also unearthed. “The preservation of cartilage in layers of Paleozoic rock is a very rare occurrence and moved the team to thoroughly document these specimens,” the National Park Service stated.
Paleontologist Rick Toomey, who is a cave resource management specialist and research coordinator at Mammoth Cave National Park, reiterated how special this discovery was, “We are very excited to find such an important set of fossils at the park,” adding, “Although we have known that we had a few shark teeth in the limestone exposed in the cave, we never imagined that we would have the abundance and diversity of sharks that JP Hodnett has identified.”
The names of the six newly-discovered shark species have not yet been publicly announced but they will be published in an upcoming scientific paper along with descriptions of the species. (Pictures of the experts in the cave can be seen on the National Park Service’s website.)