Remember that popular 1980’s video game Galaga? Little triangle shaped space ships would fly around the screen. Laser cannons would fire out of the top of the ships, laying waste to aliens that dropped down from the top of the screen. Now imagine finding the fossilized teeth of a freshwater shark that lived 67 million years ago in the forests, swamps and winding rivers of what is now South Dakota. Amazingly, those teeth look like the Galaga spaceships! So, if you’re a scientist, what would you call your ancient shark discovery? That’s right. Galagadon.
Galagadon was not a huge shark. It was about 12-to-18 inches long. You could call it a mutant catfish. Researchers believe those spaceship shaped teeth were perfect for catching small fish or crushing snails.
“The more we discover about the Cretaceous period just before the non-bird dinosaurs went extinct, the more fantastic the world becomes,” says Terry Gates, a lecturer at North Carolina State University and research affiliate with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Gates is the lead author of a paper with two colleagues from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
And ironically, it’s those teeth that led to the discovery. The tiny teeth—which measure less than one millimeter across—were left behind in the sediment when paleontologists at the Field Museum uncovered the bones of “Sue,” which currently is the most complete T. Rex fossil every found.
Gates sifted through almost two tons of dirt and found almost two-dozen teeth belonging to the new shark species. Gates believes his discovery is important to the fossil record, even though Galagadon likely won’t draw the kind of attention that Sue did.
“Every species in an ecosystem plays an important role of keeping the entire network together,” Gates adds. “There is no way for us to understand what changed in the ecosystem during the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous without knowing all of the wonderful species that existed before.” Gates’ work appears in the Journal of Paleontology.
Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.