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An “exceptionally” well-preserved skeleton of the ancient shark Asteracanthus has been revealed to the world for the first time. This remarkable rare fossil originated from Bavaria’s Solnhofen limestones.
These were originally formed in a tropical-subtropical lagoon landscape during the Late Jurassic era, approximately 150 million years ago.
Asteracanthus was certainly not only one of the largest cartilaginous fishes of its time, but also one of the most impressive
Dr Sebastian Stumpf
The almost perfectly-preserved skeleton suggests the giant Asteracanthus shark measured 8.2ft (2.5m) in length.
As a result, this ancient shark was one of the largest of its age.
Cartilaginous fishes, such as sharks remain some of the most successful vertebrate groups still in existence.
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Because of their life-long tooth replacement, rows of their teeth are among the most common fossil vertebrate finds.
But unfortunately, their cartilaginous skeletons’ low preservation potential prevents fossilisation in most instances.
The highly-rare preservation of fossil cartilaginous fish skeletons is consequently linked to extremely special conditions during fossilisation.
And these are strictly restricted to only a few fossil-bearing areas in the world – with Bavaria’s Solnhofen limestones one prime example.
They are renowned around the world by fossil hunters for producing skeletons of the Archaeopteryx feathered dinosaur, as well as countless quality shark skeletons over the past 150 years.
The study, led by University of Vienna palaeontologist Sebastian Stumpf, has now presented the largest fossil shark skeleton ever recovered from the area.
The specimen is represented by a nearly totally-preserved skeleton of the extinct hybodontiform shark Asteracanthus.
The sharks’ relatively gargantuan proportions made it a monster among its other Jurassic cousins.
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The closest relatives of modern-day sharks, hybodontiform sharks, first appeared during the latest Devonian, approximately 361 million years ago.
These went extinct together with dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period, an era estimated to have ended approximately 66 million years ago.
They had two dorsal fins, each supported by a prominent fin spine and the sharks’ size ranged from mere centimetres to roughly 10ft (3m) in length.
This consequently makes Asteracanthus one of the largest representatives of both its species and era.
For perspective, modern sharks, which were already diverse during the Jurassic, only grew to 7ft (2m) in length in very rare instances.
Asteracanthus was scientifically described more than 180 years ago by the Swiss-American naturalist Louis Agassiz on the basis of isolated fossil dorsal fin spines.
But, articulated skeletal remains have never been found and displayed — until now.
The skeleton’s mouth is also exceptionally well-preserved and contains more than 150 teeth, each with a well-developed central cusp that is accompanied on both sides by several smaller cusplets.
Sebastian Stumpf said: ”This specialised type of dentition suggests that Asteracanthus was an active predator feeding on a wide range of prey animals.
“Asteracanthus was certainly not only one of the largest cartilaginous fishes of its time, but also one of the most impressive.”
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