Helicoprion sp. reconstruction from an exhibit the Idaho Museum of Natural History, Pocatello, Idaho. Click to enlarge image
Helicoprion sp. reconstruction from an exhibit the Idaho Museum of Natural History, Pocatello, Idaho. Image: Charles Peterson
© CC BY-ND-NC 2.0

Fast Facts

  • IUCN Conservation Status
    EXTINCT (EX)
  • Classification
    Genus
    Helicoprion
    Family
    Helicoprionidae
    Order
    Eugeneodontida
    Class
    Chondrichthyes
    Phylum
    Chordata
    Kingdom
    Animalia
  • Size Range
    Body length: 10.5 - 20.3 meters

Introduction

Helicoprion is an extinct genus of shark-like eugeneodont fish (a group of extinct cartilaginous fishes). Members of Eugenodontida possess a unique morphological feature called “tooth whorls”. They first appeared in the Devonian before going extinct in the Early Triassic.


What did the Helicoprion look like?

3D interactive model of Helicoprion



3D model made by cdmstudio.com.au


Identification

Helicoprion, like other chondrichthyan fish, had skeletons made of cartilage. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to determine what Helicoprion looked like because the skeleton didn’t fossilise easily. Almost all Helicoprion specimens are fossilised 'tooth whorls' that consist of teeth embedded in a spiraled root.

In the 1900s, scientists debated where these tooth whorls were located on the animal. Some postulated that the spiral sat on the lower jaw, some claimed it sat on the upper jaw, and yet others claimed it sat on the dorsal fin. However, the recent description of fossils that preserve cartilage around the teeth confirm that the spiral teeth sit in the lower jaw (Tapanila et al. 2013).


Fossil of Helicoprion sp. shark tooth whorl from the Permian of Idaho, USA.
Fossil of Helicoprion sp. shark tooth whorl from the Permian of Idaho, USA. Image: James St. John
© CC BY 2.0

Where did the Helicoprion live?

Habitat

Fossils of Helicoprion have been found across America, Australia, Asia and Europe, indicating that it had a global distribution during the Permian.


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What did Helicoprion eat?

Feeding and diet

Understanding the unique teeth and lower jaw of Helicoprion was important for scientists as it was the key to understanding the ecology and evolution of this peculiar shark. Scientists first argued that hard-shelled prey items, such as ammonoids, would slip out of the mouth due to the shape of the tooth whorl. However, reconstructions indicate that soft prey items, such as squids, would be trapped in the tooth whorl, making them difficult to ingest (Ramsay et al. 2015).

It wasn’t until the application of biomechanical principles that scientists were able to reveal how this predator consumed its prey. Amazingly, each tooth had a different function depending on its position in the tooth-whorl: anterior teeth hooked and dragged prey into its mouth, the middle teeth pierced and cut the prey, whilst the posterior teeth cut and pushed the prey into its oral cavity (Ramsay et al. 2015). This unique feeding apparatus would have allowed Helicoprion to consume both hard- and soft bodied prey items using different feeding strategies (Ramsay et al. 2015).


References

  • Tapanila, L., Pruitt, J., Pradel, A., Wilga, C.D., Ramsay, J.B., Schlader, R. and Didier, D.A., 2013. Jaws for a spiral-tooth whorl: CT images reveal novel adaptation and phylogeny in fossil Helicoprion. Biology Letters, 9(2), p.20130057.
  • Ramsay, J.B., Wilga, C.D., Tapanila, L., Pruitt, J., Pradel, A., Schlader, R. and Didier, D.A., 2015. Eating with a saw for a jaw: Functional morphology of the jaws and tooth‐whorl in H elicoprion davisii. Journal of morphology, 276(1), pp.47-64.