Rare British shark fossil joins Natural History Museum collections

Press release - 25 July 2008

A rare fossil of a prehistoric British shark has been acquired by the Natural History Museum for its palaeontology collections. The shark, which was discovered in Durham, is 240 million years old and is the only complete specimen in the world of the primitive shark genus Wodnika.

The remarkably well-preserved shark measures over one metre long and looks most like modern bullhead sharks. From this new fossil we can see the whole of a Wodnika shark for the first time, including the shapes of its fins, skin denticles and teeth. Internally the cartilage skeleton is preserved, which is rare for fossilised sharks. The tail shape of the new specimen shows that Wodnika was probably a strong swimmer. Its blunt, rounded teeth reveal that it crushed its food – it would have eaten shellfish, crustaceans and possibly even sea urchins.

Alison Longbottom, a palaeontologist working at the Museum, said ‘To find a British shark so well preserved is very rare. We only have three other examples of Wodnika in our collections and they are only small bits of teeth and spine. This new specimen will be used for future research as well as to identify other fragment of Wodnika specimens in our collections.’

This Wodnika shark dates from the late Permian Period, when sharks were relatively rare. When it was alive, it would have been the largest shark swimming in the Zechstein sea that covered a large part of northern Europe and the north of England and contained a variety of fish, though Wodnika was one of the rarest.

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Notes for editors

• Alison Longbottom will be discussing the evolution of sharks on 2 August at 12.30 in ‘A Bite from the Past’, part of the Nature Live series of events at the Natural History Museum that bring together scientists and visitors to explore, discover and discuss the natural world and our place within it.
• Selected by Time Out in 2007 as one of the Seven Wonders of London, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries.