When Jesse Pruitt was searching the Idaho Museum of Natural History for an idea for his undergraduate research project, he didn’t expect to be part of a much bigger project that led to his research contributing to a published book.
Pruitt discovered a fossil of a Helicoprion shark, a mysterious species of shark with a distinctive set of spiral teeth.
“I just figured it was a big mystery, and I thought I could work on that a bit,” Pruitt said. “Then it just snowballed into a larger and larger project.”
Pruitt enlisted the help of Leif Tapanila, a research curator at the museum. Together, they set about solving the mystery of the shark with the spiral teeth.
One initial theory the pair considered was that the spiral occurred spontaneously at death, much like the way some birds’ necks bend back. However, they quickly realized every spiral was exactly the same.
They were then able to use CT scanners to look inside the rock and discover more about the way the jaw worked.
The research process was far from simple. Pruitt said it was virtually two full years of research and measurements. The CT scans were particularly time-consuming because Pruitt had to individually draw out the fossil before the rock was scanned in order to determine what was fossil and what was rock. He did this for each of the 376 photos they scanned.
“Every day we were down on our hands and knees measuring stuff, putting it into computer programs, graphing it 20 different ways,” Tapanila said. “It’s excruciating work, but the end point is that you can do something with that.”
And indeed, they did do something with it. Their research contributed to a book written by Susan Ewing which was published April 4 entitled “Resurrecting the Shark: A Scientific Obsession and the Mavericks Who Solved the Mystery of a 270-Million-Year-Old Fossil.”
“We’re the mavericks,” Pruitt said proudly.
Pruitt also helped develop an app of the same name to be released alongside the book. It is a virtual reality app that enables the reader to see the images in 3D.
“We were talking to the author about things we could do to make the book unique,” Pruitt said. “I was just dying to do some virtual reality stuff, so I pitched it to Susan and her eyes just lit up.”
Art and science collide in the book, as it was illustrated by Alaskan artist Ray Troll, who has been researching the Helicoprion for years.
“This is the first time I worked as a scientist with an artist where the artist was contributing just as much as the scientists were in advancing the topic,” Tapanila said. “[Ray’s] like this little kid that wants to draw his favorite animal and would ask us questions, so that would force us to look at the fossil in a way we might not have.”
Pruitt and Tapanila said this is still the beginning, but the book will do more to put Helicoprion, and Idaho’s place in its history, into mainstream culture.
“People like sharks; people like things with big teeth; and they like mysterious things,” Tapanila said. “This has all of those in one. It’s the largest predator of its time, and outside of the T-Rex, it should probably be the most popular animal any kid wants. I think it’s our job now to put this thing on the map.”
The book and research are especially exciting for locals, as it puts Pocatello (and ISU) at the heart of a major paleontological find.
In fact, the IMNH houses the largest collection of the fossils anywhere in the world. According to Tapanila, there are three possible reasons that the Helicoprion fossils are found so heavily in Pocatello.
“We were in the right place in the world at the time they were alive,”he said. “We’ve also had a mining history for a hundred years digging the very rocks that are just rich in this fossil. There’s also a theory that this was a nursery for Helicoprion. Not only were they living here, but they were breeding here. This was a sweet spot for them.”
The majority of the fossils have been found by miners digging up the rocks the fossils are preserved in.
“[The miners] are going through incredible amounts of rocks, and in these rocks are these animals,” Tapanila said. “So occasionally, when they lop off a chunk of rock, the person operating the machinery sees one of these on the wall, and they call us up. I think now there’s enough knowledge in our area that there are people interested in them, and we can preserve these things for as long as we can.”