For more than a century, the Helicoprion, a gigantic shark that lived and died before the dinosaurs, stumped paleontologists.
The beast looked like something out of a science fiction flick, with teeth resembling a circular saw and a body stretching up to 25 feet.
But before scientists knew all that, they struggled to figure out how fossils of a whorl would have fit on the creature. They guessed the spiral hung off the shark’s dorsal fins, snouts or lower jaw and was embedded in its throat.
It was only last year that a team published a paper proving the whorl was the shark’s jaw, which spanned two feet in some cases.
Now, visitors to Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium can learn about the prehistoric behemoth as part of Sharkmania, a new multifeature exhibit at the North Pacific Aquarium.
They can see fossils of the teeth dug out of phosphate mines in Idaho and pose with a lifesized Helicoprion busting out of a wall in the aquarium.
The exhibit, which opened Saturday. also gives people the chance to touch real sharks and delve into the imagination of an Alaskan artist who spent decades researching and drawing the Helicoprion.
“I want everyone to love this shark,” said Ketchikan artist Ray Troll, whose work is featured in the Buzz Saw Sharks of Long Ago section of the exhibit. “It’s my mission.”
Troll first saw a whorl fossil in the basement of a Los Angeles museum and thought it was a snail shell. Once he found out it belonged to a shark, he was hooked.
Troll doggedly pursued details about the Helicoprion and five years ago connected with a college student who he urged to track down a particular fossil.
That fossil was key in solving the mystery of where the whorl fit on the Helicoprion.
A specialized CT scanner in Texas used to scan dinosaur bones helped reconstruct the whorl, and cartilage found in the jaw revealed new information about the shark that lived in the Paleozoic era 270 million years ago.
“This was the one that answered the questions,” said Mary Thompson, senior collections manager at the Idaho Museum of Natural History.
There are 140 Helicoprion whorls held in public collections, more than 70 of which are at the museum.
They’ve been discovered in Australia, Japan, China, Mexico and Russia but most of them have been dug out of Idaho. The most recent whorl was found last year.
The Helicoprion’s teeth filled the lower jaw - the shark had no upper row of teeth. Instead, the bottom teeth rotated backward in a sawlike motion to cut its prey and then rip it apart.
Sharkmania will display four whorl fossils, one as big as an automobile tire, and three replicas of fossils.
There’s a 15-foot-long shark sculpture hanging over the aquarium’s main tank and a 6 1/2-foot replica of a megalodon shark jaw that people can step inside.
Visitors also can now touch two types of sharks. Joining the waters of Stingray Cove are whitespotted bamboo sharks and epaulette sharks, which range in size from 18 inches to 3 feet.
Twenty of Troll’s drawings are featured in the exhibit, including an illustration of the 22 theories bandied about for the whorl’s location before paleontologists figured out it was the teeth structure.
Last week, Troll and several volunteers painted a 17 1/2-foot mural showing the sharks in their natural setting.
Sharkmania is intended to teach the public about a little-known shark but also make them aware of the plight modern sharks face and how important they are to the ocean’s ecosystem, said John Garner, the zoo’s education curator.
He said an estimated 100 million sharks are killed annually for their fins, meat and cartilage.
“There’s obviously a fear factor with sharks but we want to displace the fear with empathy,” Garner said. “It will be a pretty dramatic story to tell about these huge animals.”