If you’ve been curious with us for a while, you might already have some knowledge about fossils. Maybe you’ve read about the most ideal places to discover them. Perhaps you’ve learned how they assist us in understanding what dinosaurs looked like. The subject of today’s Wonder is a creature whose fossils have captivated scientists for many years – the helicoprion!
What exactly was the helicoprion? For a long time, paleontologists believed it to be a shark. However, today they know that it is most closely related to the modern ratfish.
The helicoprion inhabited the deep parts of the ocean approximately 270 million years ago. Around 235 million years ago, they became extinct. The first recorded fossil of this creature was discovered in 1899 by Russian paleontologist Alexander Petrovich Karpinsky.
Since then, fossils have been unearthed in various locations such as Russia, Australia, Mexico, Japan, the western United States, and many others. However, most of these fossils are only partial, representing one part of the helicoprion’s body – its teeth. These teeth, however, are far from ordinary. The fossils reveal a row of sharp, slanted teeth in a spiral formation that closely resemble a buzz saw.
This unique arrangement of teeth came to be known as a tooth whorl. Its appearance puzzled scientists for many years since the fossils provided very little information. The majority of the helicoprion’s body was composed of cartilage, which meant that teeth were the only parts that remained intact enough to be fossilized.
Over the years, experts proposed various hypotheses to explain the appearance of the helicoprion. Most of these theories suggested that the tooth whorl was connected to its jaw. However, there was disagreement on whether it was part of the upper or lower jaw. Some believed that the row of teeth curved outward, while others suggested that it spiraled inward towards the mouth. One theory even proposed a connection between the whorl and the animal’s tail!
Then, in 1950, a fossil discovered in Idaho provided some insights into this mystery. Paleontologists who studied the fossil found that it contained both a tooth whorl and fragments of cartilage. Further examination led to some interesting discoveries.
The scientists concluded that the tooth whorl was most likely attached to the helicoprion’s lower jaw. In fact, they believe that the animal did not possess an upper row of teeth at all. Instead, the whorl was positioned vertically, filling the entire lower jaw and spiraling outward from the mouth into supportive cartilage.
So, how did helicoprion utilize its teeth? Like most animals on Earth, it used them for eating! When prey came too close, the helicoprion could slice them in half with just one bite. The animal could continue to chop its prey into bite-sized pieces using its saw-like teeth.
Earth’s ancient history is filled with fascinating creatures, and the helicoprion is just one of them! Its teeth make it an incredibly unique animal. Are there any other prehistoric creatures that interest you? Take the opportunity to learn more about them today!
Give It a Try
Learn more with the help of a friend or family member using the activities below!
- Imagine you have just discovered the very first helicoprion fossil. What would be your thoughts? How would you interpret the spiral arrangement of its teeth? Take a look at images of the fossil online. Then, have a conversation with a friend or family member about your conjectures on the appearance of this creature based on its fossils.
- Visit National Geographic to explore information about at least one more prehistoric animal. Afterward, create a drawing and use colors to depict the animal you read about. On the reverse side of your artwork, write a concise paragraph describing three facts you have learned. Finally, share your drawing and paragraph with a friend or family member.
- Feeling inclined towards crafts? Seek assistance from an adult to create your own fossils! Make sure you gather all the necessary materials before commencing. What type of fossils will you make? Enjoy the educational experience with this fascinating craft!
- https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/buzzsaw-jaw-helicoprion-was-a-freaky-ratfish (accessed 05 Apr. 2021)
- https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/running-ponies/prehistoric-ghost-shark-helicoprions-spiral-toothed-jaw-explained/ (accessed 05 Apr. 2021)
- https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/sharklike-helicoprion-ruled-its-environs-with-a-row-of-vertical-teeth/ (accessed 05 Apr. 2021)
- https://fossil.fandom.com/wiki/Helicoprion (accessed 05 Apr. 2021)
- https://learnersdictionary.com/ (accessed 05 Apr. 2021)