CAVE CITY, Ky. (WDRB) — Among the dangling bats, vibrant orange salamanders and plentiful cave crickets that call Mammoth Cave home, the profile of a new type of animal is starting to emerge after a recent discovery.
Around dusk Thursday, with a spotlight strapped to his helmet, Rick Toomey pried open the heavy iron door to a little known cave entrance at Mammoth Cave National Park. He led WDRB News down into the darkness.
“This is the entrance,” said Toomey, the park’s cave specialist and research coordinator. “The cave is my office.”
In the cool, damp tunnel, mined almost a century ago and absent any permanent lighting, Toomey clambered down roughly eight stories of stairs before reaching the cave floor.
“Welcome to the cave,” he said as he pointed at a nearby wall. “This is where things are happening.”
Over the past few years, Toomey and a colleague started noticing brownish fragments embedded in the wall. Typically, fossils are beige in color. These fossils were different.
Further exploration continued to yield the unusual results: more brown fossils. All of them appeared to be the relics of now-extinct sharks. Some are jaggedly sharp. Others are dull and flat.
The finds didn’t shock Toomey too much. Kentucky was underwater hundreds of millions of years ago, he said.
“Kentucky was the happening place to go scuba diving or snorkeling,” he said with a laugh. “It would’ve been a great place for snorkeling, sharks notwithstanding.”
But then, the explorers discovered something even more unusual. Under a sharp overhang on the cave wall, they found what looked like the jaw of a shark.
Photos of Toomey’s findings were ultimately sent up the chain to Maryland, where J.P. Hodnett is a paleontologist at the Dinosaur Park outside Washington, D.C.
“They were excited because like, ‘Oh wow, these are really cool sharks’ teeth inside of our cave, but what kind of sharks are they?”‘ Hodnett remembered.
Hodnett quickly identified the specimens. The jaw, he hypothesized, belonged to an extinct shark called Saivadus, which lived 330 million years ago and has since gone extinct. Hodnett says not much is known about that species, which rivaled the size of a great white shark.
“If you think of the Jaws movie or the megalodon movie, there’s this fin sticking out of the water cutting across the water on the surface,” he said. “Now, picture that, but add like a large sharp spine right in front of that fin.”
Hodnett had to see the fossils for himself.
“At first, when I got there, I was like, ‘Oh man, just leave me in there,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll become a fossil, you know.'”
In November, when he made the trip to Mammoth Cave, he confirmed the findings and their significance to the scientific community.
“Mammoth Cave plays an important role in like filling a big puzzle piece for what we know about this region in terms of fossil fish,” the paleontologist said. “No one has ever found shark fossils in this particular layer of rock anywhere.”
Toomey is just as excited.
“We’re starting to get a pretty good idea of what this ocean would’ve looked like,” he said as he pointed to the fossils. “What makes it worth it is the thrill of discovery.”
Toomey believes the recent discoveries are just the start. Now that he and others know what to look for, he’s sure more shark fossils will be found. He said the discovery changes the understanding of Mammoth Cave’s natural history.
The fossils aren’t in a place the public can tour, but Toomey hopes the park will find a way to put some of the finds on display one day.
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