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Resurrecting the Shark: A Scientific Obsession and the Mavericks Who Solved the Mystery of a 270-Million-Year-Old Fossil


When I drove down to Pocatello in June 2013 to attend the opening of “The Whorl-toothed Sharks of Idaho” exhibit at the Idaho Museum of Natural History, I expected to see illustrations and fossils of the bizarre extinct shark, Helicoprion. I never suspected the beast would seize my imagination and shake until my brain rattled.

Truth be told, I didn’t go to Pocatello for the shark. I went because I hadn’t seen my artist friend Ray Troll in a long time and he was throwing one of his famous after-parties to celebrate the exhibit, which featured his artwork. There in the exhibit hall, surrounded by astonishing fossils, life-sized Helicoprion models, and Troll’s beguiling art, I started asking questions. As Ray had obsessed for more than twenty years about what the shark looked like, I began to obsess on the story—all those chance discoveries, unexpected connections, absorbing sidelights, and compelling science factoids. Walking through the exhibit I met Jesse Pruitt, a tattooed combat veteran and undergraduate student, and his advisor-turned-colleague, then-research curator Leif Tapanila. I was taken by their backstories, as well as those of the other “Team Helico” members who had just published their breakthrough findings on Helicoprion.

The more I looked, the more I began to see the Chinese knot of lives (animal and human, past and present), feel the undertow of deep time, and more fully appreciate the way the earth is in a constant state of change, with species rising, thriving, and disappearing. . .