A 300 million-year-old shark relative, nicknamed the Godzilla shark after its discovery in 2013, has finally received a proper name after being classified as its own species.
Paleontologists found the unusually complete and well-preserved 6.7-foot-long (2 meters) fossilized skeleton of the ancient shark at a private site in the Manzano Mountains near Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The study was published online April 15 in the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs Bulletin.
Hoffman’s Dragon Shark
nicknamed “Godzilla” shark because of its size, the skeleton is the largest fossil of its kind ever discovered in the area. Distinctive features of the skeleton include 12 rows of piercing teeth placed between powerful jaws and a pair of 0.8-meter-long spines on its back.
“I am also a big fan of the Godzilla film franchise,” Hodnett, a paleontologist at the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, said. “So when the features of this shark came to light, I thought it was the perfect nickname.”
The shark was officially named “Hoffman’s Dragon Shark” (Dracopristis hoffmanorum), after the family that owned the land where the skeleton was found, and in recognition of its wild appearance.
“It is very rare to find skeletal material of ancient sharks, let alone a complete skeleton that also preserved the body outline and other soft tissue impressions,” Hodnett said. “That and it being a new species was also amazing and unique.”
Hoffman’s dragon shark belonged to a group of mysterious ancient sharks known as the Ctenacanths which diverged from modern sharks and rays around 390 million years ago during the Devonian Period. The exquisitely preserved skeleton enabled the researchers to learn more about this poorly understood group.
One of the biggest differences between the Ctenacanths and modern sharks is their jaws. “Their [Ctenacanths] jaws are larger, more firmly attached to the cranium, making them less flexible,” Hodnett said.
These fixed jaws may mean that these Ctenacanths were not predators at the top of the food pyramid like The modern shark, instead, the new fossil indicates that it may have occupied a different ecological place.
“From the anatomy of the pectoral fins and tail we propose that Dracopristis was most likely a predator that kept close to the bottom of the ancient lagoon estuary it lived in,” Hodnett said. “The teeth are also more adapted for grasping and crushing prey like crustaceans and small vertebrates.”
The researchers suggest that the large spines on the back of the “Hoffman Dragon Shark” may have been used as a defense against the larger sharks. The teeth of the great sharks found in the area provide evidence of this, according to a press release from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (NMMNHS).
One fossil is not enough
The Ctenacanths went extinct during the mass extinction event at the end of the Permian Period 252 million years ago, which brought an end to the Paleozoic Era. However, the exact cause of the sharks’ demise is still unclear.
Scientists are now searching for more fossils in the area to learn more about its life history and evolutionary characteristics, such as longevity, growth rate, age of reproductive maturity and reproductive production.
Eileen Grogan, co-author and biologist at St. Joseph University in Philadelphia, say: “We can’t reliably reconstruct the life-history traits of a species based on one specimen alone.”
“A more holistic understanding of life-history traits requires greater sampling across sizes, sexes, and the environments in which the organism existed.” she added.