The biology of iconic megatoothed 'megalodon' shark-the largest shark species to have existed on Earth-and other extinct sharks remain largely unknown. For example, it is unclear whether 'megalodon' was 'cold blooded' or 'warm blooded' and how other fossil shark species compare. Understanding these biological details coupled with environmental reconstructions could help researchers understand what led to the demise of 'megalodon' during the late Pliocene (about 2.6 million years ago), and thus help to better understand the sensitivity of large shark species to ecosystem changes. This project uses isotopic 'fingerprinting' of teeth to reconstruct not only the body temperatures, but also dietary behavior and seawater chemistry of 'megalodon' and other shark species during the past 15 million years. In addition, this work supports a PhD student, a postdoctoral research fellow at a Hispanic Serving Institution, and undergraduate research experiences for under-represented minority (URM) students.

Shark teeth are the most abundant vertebrate fossil and their resistance to diagenetic alteration provides a substrate for gechemical analysis. This project explores the phylogenetic history of endothermy within lamniform sharks using a coupled paleoecological and geochemical framework. Specifically, this work consists of four objectives: (1) estimate body temperatures of modern and ancestral marine vertebrates using 'clumped' isotope thermometry (i.e., thermodynamic preference of 13C and 18O to form bonds, or 'clump', in the carbonate mineral lattice), and assess foraging behavior using calcium isotopes (44Ca/42Ca) and 3D microwear analysis in bioapatite; (2) reconstruct and compare shark habitats using oxygen isotopes ( 18O) of shark tooth phosphate and carbonate; (3) infer changes in seawater Sr/Ca between the mid-Miocene Climate Optimum (17-15 million years before present) and Pliocene (~5.3-2.6 million years before present) from bioapatite; (4) build a research community of under-represented minority students. Coupling 'clumped' isotope thermometry-a relatively new method to determine body temperature-with other stable isotope and biogeochemical proxies to explore shark paleoecology through geologic time is the first of its kind. In addition, this project coincides with an upsurge of interest in the debate surrounding the rise and extinction of 'megalodon.' This research, therefore, combines paleontological questions with geochemical techniques to bring scientists one step closer to tackling the 'megalodon extinction hypothesis'.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Earth Sciences (EAR)
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Dena Smith
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William Paterson University
United States
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