S.C. Scientists Discover New Fossil Shark Species

Dec 20, 2019

Naturalists Jim Knight and Dave Cicimurri have collected fossils for decades, but recently they realized that among the thousands of fossils of prehistoric sea creatures they recovered - from a rich site near downtown Aiken, of all places - that they'd discovered a new species of ancient shark.

Knight is the former curator of natural history at the South Carolina State Museum.    When he retired, Cicimurri succeeded him.  After going through buckets of sediment brought back from Aiken and separating the fossilized shark teeth out, Cicimurri said they recognized them as resembling the modern daggernose shark. 

"Well, lo and behold, it fit every criterion to be Isogomphodon, (the scientific name of the daggernose)" said Knight.  "It was the right shape and structure and the whole bit.  So we said, 'well, shoot, that looks like a new one, because it's much smaller than those that come after it, and it's much older than the others.'"  The fossils from the site are 34.5 million years old, said the naturalist.

Thinking there was something to their hypothesis of a new species, the pair dug into researching the scientific literature.  "We looked at the descriptions and shapes of all these daggernose shark teeth," said Cicimurri, "and determined that what we found in Aiken wasn't the same thing.  So that's why we named it a new species, because it didn't conform to anything that had been reported before.  And there we had, based on the teeth, this new species." 

They named the prehistoric daggernose Isogomphodon Aikenensis, after the town and county where it was discovered.  Cicimurri said the fossils not only reveal facts about the shark and other sea creatures, but their discovery so far inland confirms what scientists have long known: that what is now Aiken - and all the land that is between it and the coast - was millions of years ago at the bottom of the ocean.

The friends have no plans to stop with one discovery.  In fact, it's the second new species discovery for Cicimurri, who found a new species of ray at the same site.  

"Research never ends," said Knight.  "And I suspect that I'll be doing it until I can't walk anymore.  And then I'll sit at a microscope until I can't see anymore."

His sentiments of dedication were echoed by his colleague.  Cicimurri said he'll be at it "as long as I can walk or somebody else collects the material and we can look at it in the lab.  As long as I don't go blind, I guess I can still do it." 

One senses that will be a long time.