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Resurrecting the Shark

In the winter of 1993, residents of Los Angeles County were talking about building arks. The year had opened with a deluge that dumped nearly twelve inches of rain in less than a week. But the heavens were at rest and it was a pleasant if cloudy January day when Alaskan artist Ray Troll and his writer friend Brad Matsen pushed through the heavy glass doors of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The building’s façade still bore gunshot wounds from the previous spring’s Rodney King race riots, but down in the subterranean collections, the museum was an ocean of calm under flickering fluorescent lights.

Troll and Matsen were collaborating on a book about ancient oceans and had come to see fossil fish expert J. D. Stewart. Stewart hailed from Kansas, and Troll had gone to junior high, high school, and college in Wichita, which was connection enough for Troll to cold-call him and wangle an invitation to come nose around the museum’s collections. This proclivity for picking up the phone and calling scientists out of the blue was about to send Troll down a path deep into an atlas obscura of real sea monsters. . . .

The NHM vertebrate paleontology department has more than 150,000 catalogued vertebrate fossil specimens spanning 450 million years of evolution. Which is a rockin’ lot of evolution. In that 450 million years animals with backbones branched out and diversified with such innovative and consequential developments as jaws, teeth, internal skeletons, limbs, lungs, hips, wings, and for better and worse, big brains and opposable thumbs. Near the end of the day, after hours of scavenging through drawers and shelves and crates, Stewart was showing Troll and Matsen a Dolichorhynchops, a Cretaceous plesiosaur that lived about 75 million years ago. In an afterthought that would wobble the orbit of Troll’s world, Stewart hunkered down and wrestled one last fossil-bearing boulder from the shadows of the bottom shelf. “Check this out,” said one Kansas boy to the other. . .

Coming April 2017.

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