New Species Of Shark Fossils Discovered At Mammoth Cave National Park

Oct 14, 2020

Painting of ancient sea and marine life preserved at Mammoth Cave National Park.
Credit Julius Csotonyi

The fossils of at least six new species of sharks and close relatives have been identified at Mammoth Cave National Park. A team of paleontologists, cave specialists, and park rangers revealed their findings on Wednesday, National Fossil Day

The fossils were found in the late 1990s in remote locations in the cave, but weren’t identified until last November. At least 40 different species of sharks have since been identified, including the 6 new species. 

These newly discovered sharks and other specimens lived over 340 million years ago according to paleontologist John-Paul Hodnett. Back then, Mammoth Cave was a vast body of water. The cave started to form between 12 million and 14 million years ago. The cave is known for many ice age mammal fossils and ancient marine organisms. 

Hodnett is a shark fossil specialist from Maryland-National Capital Parks who helped identify the fossils within the cave walls. 

Hodnett said the rare shark skeletal cartilage documented in Mammoth Cave has not been found anywhere else. 

“We are literally just scratching the surface,” Hodnett said. “This information and the specimen are just pouring out. So it’s going to take time to process through all of it but we are excited from what we are seeing right off the bat.”

John-Paul Hodnett, paleontologist with Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, inspects a rare preservation of fossilized skeletal cartilage inside Mammoth Cave.
Credit Mammoth Cave National Park

The new fossils were discovered in areas that aren’t accessible to the public. The team had to crawl along the cave floor at one point to access some of the fossils.

“I am absolutely amazed at the diversity of sharks we see while exploring the passages that make up Mammoth Cave. We can hardly move more than a couple of feet as another tooth or spine is spotted in the cave ceiling or wall,” Hodnett said in a statement.

“We are seeing a range of different species of chondrichthyans (cartilaginous fish) that fill a variety of ecological niches, from large predators to tiny little sharks that lived amongst the crinoid (sea lily) forest on the seafloor that was their habitat.”  

The search for new fossils in this part of the cave is ongoing. Hodnett said that he’ll be taking multiple trips to collect more data.

Mammoth Cave is working with many organizations and institutions, including Western Kentucky University to help identify additional information on the shark fossils as well as their habitat.

Rick Toomey, a vertebrate paleontologist at Mammoth Cave and the cave resource management specialist, said since the fossils were discovered at a national park, they’ll be protected so future generations can experience them.       

Mammoth Cave National Park Cave Specialist, Rick Toomey, uses a small dental pick to collect a fossil from the walls of Mammoth Cave.
Credit Mammoth Cave National Park

“The fact that it’s here at the park keeps them from being exploited, being mined out, being sold as souvenirs. So, the parks are very important for protecting these types of resources,” Toomey said. 

Toomey said the same fossils could appear along roads near Interstate 65, but those specimens will be weathered away. He told WKU Public Radio that the cave is a unique place that keeps fossils intact for further studies. 

There will be an exhibit for the discovery, but a date for the debute of that display has not been announced.