Weird Heads Month #11: Scissor-Toothed “Sharks”

The eugeneodontidans were a group of cartilaginous fish which convergently evolved to resemble sharks but were much closer related to modern chimaeras. Due to their cartilage skeletons usually little more than their teeth are found as fossils, and for a long time their ecology and life appearance has been poorly understood because of just how weird those teeth were.

These fish had unique “tooth whorls” in their lower jaws, and the most famous member of the group is probably Helicoprion, with the exact anatomical placement of its buzzsaw-whorl only being properly figured out in 2013.

But another eugeneodontidan named Edestus was equally strange.

Living during the late Carboniferous, about 306-299 million years ago, Edestus giganteus was the largest species in the genus, reaching estimated lengths of up to 6m (19’8″), similar in size to a modern orca or a particularly large white shark.

Let’s take a closer peek at that mouth.

A close up drawing of the head of the extinct shark-like fish Edestus. It has a single central row of large teeth in its upper and lower jaws.

Yes, that’s a single central row of teeth in both its upper and lower jaws.

Edestus‘ whorls grew in curving “banana-shaped” brackets that resembled an enormous pair of pinking shears, with new teeth being added on at the back and the oldest teeth occasionally being ejected off from the front. How this jaw arrangement worked was a longstanding paleontological mystery, with various bizarre ideas being proposed over the years – until a particularly well-preserved skull was analyzed in early 2019, revealing a two-jointed system in its lower jaw that allowed it to move its tooth brackets quickly back and forth, using a “snap-and-slice” motion to grab hold of prey like fish and soft-bodied cephalopods and cut them in half.

Along with body impressions from other related eugeneodontidans like Fadenia, showing a shark-like tail and a complete lack of rear fins, we now have a much better picture of what this bizarre fish probably looked like.

Falcatus

Falcatus falcatus, a 30cm long (12″) cartilaginous fish from the mid-Carboniferous of Montana, USA (~326-318 mya).

Although it looked very shark-like it was actually much more closely related to modern chimaeras, and its most distinctive feature was the forward-pointing “unicorn horn” spine just behind its head – a sexually dimorphic structure formed from a highly modified dorsal fin, found only on mature males.

The spine’s function is unknown for certain, but it may have been a sort of clasper involved in courtship and mating, since one fossil seems to preserve a female in the act of biting onto it. Some of its close relatives like Damocles and Stethacanthus also had similarly weird dorsal fins, so whatever these fish were actually doing with these structures it must have been a fairly successful strategy.

Falcatus lived out in the open ocean, with proportionally big eyes giving it good vision in deep dark water, and its large symmetrical tail fin suggests it was a fast maneuverable swimmer that actively chased after small prey. Numerous fossils have been found together, which may also indicate schooling behavior.

Although definite fossils of falcatids are only known from the Carboniferous, recently there’s been some possible evidence of them surviving for much much longer. A few isolated fossil teeth from Europe suggest that some of these fish may have persisted for at least another 180 million years into the Early Cretaceous, living in isolated deep water refugia environments in a similar situation to the modern coelacanth – making them fossils of what would have been “living fossils” at the time!