A graduate student pierced a pocket knife through shaley limestones in New Mexico, not expecting to find much.
That student — John-Paul Hodnett — was part of a group of researchers learning about fossils of Pennsylvanian Period plants and animals in 2013. He had only found fragments of plants and fish scales up to that point, and the group was about to leave the site when Hodnett found something different.
“Suddenly I hit something that was a bit denser,” Hodnett, a specialist in ancient sharks, told the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs in a news release. “At first, I thought what was flipped over was the cross-section of a limb bone, which was exciting as no large tetrapod had been found at that site before.”
However, what he found was much bigger: the complete skeleton of a massive, 6.7-foot shark that lived 300 million years ago, New Mexico officials said. Now eight years after the massive discovery, the creature finally has an official name.
Researchers nicknamed it the “Godzilla Shark,” since the animal had 12 rows of teeth and 2 ½-foot fin spines on its back. It was the largest fish found at the site.
The scientific name, Dracopristis hoffmanorum, means Hoffman’s Dragon Shark. It recognizes the creature’s size and the Hoffman family, who owned the land in the Manzano Mountains where the fossil was discovered southeast of Albuquerque.
During the years of research, many experts studied the fossil to figure out more about it. They had to expose more of the fossil, and they didn’t know what they discovered at first.
“The Museum fossil preparatory, Tom Suazo, came in with this cardboard tray in his hand and a huge grin on his face, saying that it wasn’t a tetrapod that I found but a really big shark,” Hodnett said.
The team compared the fossil to other ancient sharks and put it through a CT scan, which helped experts determine that they were looking at a new ctenacanth shark.
“By looking at the rocks where it was found and the anatomy of Dracopristis, the team determined that the Dragon Shark likely lived in shallow lagoons and estuaries, cruising near the bottom of the waterways to ambush prey such as crustaceans, bony fish, and other sharks,” Department of Cultural Artifacts officials said in the news release.
The Godzilla Shark’s large dorsal fin spines could have helped it deter predators — ones even larger than the creature.
“In the same rocks that yielded the fossil of Dracopristis, we have found teeth of a larger shark called Glikmanius, which is known almost worldwide at this time,” Hodnett said. “It would have been a large and dangerous predator.”