BY: ERIN ALBRIGHT, Staff Writer
Six new species of sharks have been discovered at Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park. The fossils of sharks and other close relatives were found on National Fossil Day.
A team of paleontologists, cave specialists and park rangers made their findings last Wednesday in areas that aren’t accessible to the public. At one point, the team had to crawl along the floor to access some of the fossils.
Besides the Mammoth Cave team, organizations and institutions are also working to identify the shark fossils, one of these institutions being Western Kentucky University.
The sharks and other specimens lived over 340 million years ago, during the Mississippian Period, when Mammoth Cave was a vast body of water. In the 1990s, paleontologists had started finding shark teeth and other fossils, but no one had found any other shark fossils from this layer of excavation until now. Each layer underground reveals a different year filled with new shapes and sizes of discoveries.
The shark fossil finding is all the more impressive due to shark skeletons being composed of cartilage instead of bone, meaning they are rarely preserved in fossil records underground.
Paleontologist John-Paul Hodnett who is working on the Mammoth Cave Team said, “I am absolutely amazed at the diversity of the sharks we see while exploring the passages that make-up Mammoth Cave. We are literally just scratching the surface. It’s going to take time to process through all of it, but we are excited from what we are seeing right off the bat.”
Paleontologists have identified more than 40 different species of sharks at Mammoth Cave in the past ten months.
“We can hardly move more than a couple of feet as another tooth or spine is spotted in the cave or ceiling or wall,” Hodnett said.
The search for new fossils is ongoing and the team will be making multiple return trips to collect more data. Since they were found at a national park, the fossils will be protected for future generations.
Mammoth Cave began to form between 12 and 14 million years ago. It is known for housing many ice age mammal fossils, as well as ancient marine organisms.
There will eventually be an in-person exhibit for the discovery, as well as 3D reconstructions, photos and artist renditions for visitors to enjoy.