On Victoria’s Surf Coast, amateur fossil hunter Philip Mullaly is scanning the shore for signs of ancient life. Then the sunlight catches something jutting out from a nearby rock. And soon after Mullaly realizes that he has made an incredible discovery; he has uncovered the tooth of a beast that stalked Australian waters millions of years before the great white shark.
In 2015 Mullaly was visiting the beach at Jan Juc, a suburban town some 65 miles southwest of Melbourne, Victoria. The area is known for its fossil finds, so Mullaly was keeping his eyes peeled for any such relics. And, amazingly, his walk was interrupted when he found a huge tooth embedded in the coastal rock.
“I was walking along the beach looking for fossils, turned and saw this shining glint in a boulder and saw a quarter of the tooth exposed,” Mullaly explained in a video published by Museums Victoria in August 2018. “I was immediately excited. It was just perfect, and I knew it was an important find that needed to be shared with people.”
Without any specialist equipment, Mullaly used a car key to excavate the tooth – which turned out to be colossal. In fact, at around three inches long, the fossil was large enough to cover the palm of his hand. Pleased with his discovery, Mullaly then returned home. Just weeks later, however, he found himself back at Jan Juc.
And this time, Mullaly was even luckier. In fact, he was able to recover a number of further teeth, strengthening his conviction that this was something special. “It dawned on me when I found the second, third and fourth tooth that this was a really big deal,” he told The New York Times in August 2018.
Hoping to learn more about his discoveries, Mullaly got in touch with paleontologist Erich Fitzgerald at Melbourne’s Museums Victoria. And soon, the expert was able to identify the owner of the giant teeth. Apparently, they had come from the mouth of Carcharocles angustidens – the great jagged narrow-toothed shark.
Back in the late Oligocene era – between 33.9 million and 23 million years ago – these formidable beasts inhabited the earth’s oceans, where they fed on creatures such as whales, dolphins and fish. Members of the Carcharocles angustidens species are also thought to have grown to up to 30 feet in length – making them almost twice as big as the great white sharks seen off the coast of Australia today.
And, apparently, the teeth that Mullaly located can be dated to around 25 million years ago – some three million years, then, before C. angustidens became extinct. Eventually, the shark was replaced by a similar species, which in turn paved the way for the emergence of megalodon – the famous mega-toothed shark thought to have been able to grow to a staggering 59 feet.
But there was something about Mullaly’s finds that made them particularly valuable. It seemed that all of the teeth he had recovered from Jan Juc had come from a single individual – rather than from several sharks that had shed their teeth over a period of time.
In the past, fossil hunters have found single C. angustidens teeth at various places and on different occasions. However, Mullaly’s discoveries marked only the third time in history that a set belonging to one of the creatures has been unearthed. Additionally, it was the first time that such a find had been made on Australian shores.
Amazed, Fitzgerald wasted no time in acting on Mullaly’s breakthrough. “I said to him, ‘You realize how important and rare these are?’” the paleontologist recalled to The New York Times. “‘There could be more there. We need to go back down there and dig.’” So, with the help of colleague Tim Ziegler, Fitzgerald began planning a trip to Jan Juc.
Over the course of two expeditions – one in December 2017 and the next in January 2018 –Fitzgerald, Ziegler and Mullaly worked with a team of paleontologists and volunteers at the Victoria beach. And despite the challenging conditions created by the tides, the group began to excavate the site of the original tooth.
Eventually, the team were able to recover more than 40 separate teeth from the beach at Jan Juc. They also found the remains of part of a C. angustidens vertebrae. And because each tooth could be traced to a different spot in the jaw, Fitzgerald was able to make an educated assumption that they all belonged to the same animal.
Clearly, the contents of its jaw would have made C. angustidens a fearsome predator – a creature at the top of the food chain in Australia’s Oligocene oceans. “The teeth were finely serrated and sharper than a steak knife,” Fitzgerald explained during his New York Times interview. “They are still sharp – even 25 million years later.”
Interestingly, though, the team didn’t just find C. angustidens teeth buried in the rock. Apparently, they also uncovered a number belonging to a different, smaller species of shark: the sixgill, a scavenger that still patrols Australian waters. Moreover, these teeth appeared to have come from as many as six individual sharks.
Amazingly, this discovery has since enabled researchers to put together a convincing picture of what might have happened to one particular member of the C. angustidens species millions of years ago. After the shark’s death, they reasoned, its gigantic carcass floated to the bottom of the sea, where the sixgills feasted on the larger predator’s corpse.
“The teeth of the sixgill shark work like a crosscut saw and tore into the Carcharocles angustidens like loggers felling a tree,” Ziegler explained in an August 2018 statement from Museums Victoria. “The stench of blood and decaying flesh would have drawn scavengers from far around.”
Some proposed a different answer to the question of how the sixgill teeth ended up mixed in with the C. angustidens remains: specifically, the larger creature had actually preyed upon and eaten the scavengers. However, researchers could find no evidence that the smaller shark’s teeth had been digested.
Then, on August 9, 2018, Museums Victoria released a statement confirming the details of the incredible finds and inviting the public to view the entire set of teeth at an exhibition at Melbourne Museum. There, the teeth took center stage during the Australian attraction’s celebrations for National Science Week.
Now, Fitzgerald hopes that his team can further investigate C. angustidens and the factors that may have caused its extinction. He even believes that there could be more discoveries waiting to be unearthed at Jan Juc. “We’ll be waiting and ready for the next expedition down to salvage a giant prehistoric shark,” he told CNN in August 2018.