I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
In 1993, Alaskan artist and paleo-shark enthusiast Ray Troll stumbled upon the weirdest fossil he had ever seen—a platter-sized spiral of tightly wound shark teeth. This chance encounter in the basement of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County sparked Troll’s obsession with Helicoprion, a mysterious monster from deep time.
In 2010, tattooed undergraduate student and returning Iraq War veteran Jesse Pruitt became seriously smitten with a Helicoprion fossil in a museum basement in Idaho. These two bizarre-shark disciples found each other, and an unconventional band of collaborators grew serendipitously around them, determined to solve the puzzle of the mysterious tooth whorl once and for all.
Helicoprion was a Paleozoic chondrichthyan about the size of a modern great white shark, with a circular saw of teeth centered in its lower jaw—a feature unseen in the shark world before or since. For some ten million years, long before the Age of Dinosaurs, Helicoprion patrolled the shallow seas around the supercontinent Pangaea as the apex predator of its time.
Just a few tumultuous years after Pruitt and Troll met, imagination, passion, scientific process, and state-of-the-art technology merged into an unstoppable force that reanimated the remarkable creature—and made important new discoveries.
| I don’t remember exactly which year it was that I was kind of accidentally introduced to the artwork of Ray Troll. I work on a university campus and occasionally there will be an event which catches my attention that I’ll attend after work. I’m also a paleontology enthusiast, so when I saw a session about fossil fish and I had no other responsibilities for the day, I went. Little did I know, that I was going to become a fan of fin art! Mr. Troll was giving a presentation on his artwork which featured fossil fishes and I was hooked, so to speak.
Ray Troll also ends up being a central character in this history of the understanding of the whorl-toothed shark, Helicoprion. The fossil whorl captivated him and he spent years talking with paleontologists about Paleozoic sharks, trying to accurately illustrate the animal. Because of when he started his quest, he knew the old guard (now deceased) and was able to dispense some of their wisdom to younger researchers (and point them toward appropriate papers). In fact, he seems to have become the fairy godfather of the Helicoprion project, facilitating contact between professionals which might never otherwise have happened.
I would have to say that popular works on paleo-fish research are few and far between and Susan Ewing has written a very enjoyable contribution to the field. She manages to cover all the factual data and still have a sense of humour, as when she describes one researcher using CT scans to “squeeze out every last ounce of sharky goodness.”
I would also encourage you to check out Troll’s webpage and art:
Thank goodness for people like him, who have the passion to pursue these fascinating research projects, being cheerleaders and facilitators.