Resurrecting the Shark opens with just the facts, in true science fashion: "Scientists estimate that 99.9 percent of all species ever to slink, swim, fly, fight, wail, or warble on this earth are now extinct. "The number of extinct species is thought to be somewhere between five and fifty billion. Billion. Species. Extinct."
But Susan Ewing's astonishment and excitement enliven those bare facts, and the telling of this extraordinary science detective story, propelling readers onward through history, tangled thickets of taxonomy, the politics of fossil collecting and species description, the petty jealousies of competing researchers, and the state-of-the-art technology now used to conjure whole organisms out of a scattering of preserved body parts.
The subject of the mystery itself was no ordinary organism, Ewing points out: "Of those estimated extinguished billions, a random few percent are chronicled in the fossil record. This is the story of one of those few—the one-in-a-billion buzz saw shark, Helicoprion, a species that survived over a span of some ten million years, between about 270 and 280 million years ago, long before the dinosaurs."
Imagine an ancient shark the size of a Great White or larger, only like no shark known today, with a lower jaw dominated by a buzz-saw-blade-like arc of fearsome cutting teeth. Now imagine that the only recognizable bit of this huge and weird shark is the spiral of those giant teeth with nothing else to suggest what they are or to whom they belong. Therein lies the mystery: how do you make a shark out of a fossil that looks nothing like anything on earth today?
Ewing tells a rollicking tale of the fossils that stumped the world's most prominent geologists and paleontologists (including one Fanny Rysam Mulford Hitchcock, that rarest of the rare, a female Victorian scientist), for more than a century. It is Ewing's skill at bringing their personalities and times alive that makes Resurrecting the Shark such a compelling account, both of the evolution of science and of our understanding of earth's past.
The mystery of Heliciprion and its buzz-saw spiral of teeth remained obscure until 2010, when Jesse Pruitt, an inquisitive Iraq War vet and undergraduate student at Idaho State University became intrigued by the school.s collection of the strange spiral fossils. In his quest to figure out the shark the fossils represented Pruitt assembled an oddly assorted team of scientists, virtual reality experts, and Ray Troll, an Alaskan artist with rock star status among scientists for his irreverent but factually correct depictions of marine life. Working together, Team Helicoprion brought the shark to life. Mostly.
Like any good mystery, especially in science, there is still more to figure out about Helicoprion, the weirdest shark to ever swim the oceans. As Ewing writes: "Our planet is a big spinning ball full of enormous amazement and intimate surprise. We can never solve all of its mysteries or know the full scope of its endless, complicated workings. But we can wonder."
Ewing ends this astonishing and fascinating tale of science in action with an invitation for us all to join the quest: "Some say the meek will inherit the earth, but really it's the curious. It's yours for the asking."
Read an excerpt from this book.
Susan Ewing is the author of The Great Alaska Nature Factbook, The Great Rocky Mountain Nature Facebook, Going Wild in Washington and Oregon, plus several books for children, including Ten Rowdy Ravens. Her articles and essays have appeared in Salon, Pacific Standard, Outside Bozeman, Gray's Sporting Journal, Big Sky Journal, The Seattle Times, and other publications. She graduated from University of Alaska-Fairbanks and now lives in Bozeman, Montana. Visit her website.
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