Shark Week – Paleo Sharks: Survival of the Strangest

It’s that time of year again: Shark Week returns in a frenzy of fins and teeth! Now, if you’re a science nerd like me, you’ve probably been disappointed by the sensationalism and lack of variety in the lineup of the last few years. While the program originally sought to educate viewers on a wide variety of shark-related subjects, it feels as though recent years have featured nothing but Top 10 Shark Attack programs, Great White related features, Shark Attack survivor stories, fake Megalodon documentaries, and a few more SHARK ATTACKS OH NO!!! for good measure. To their credit, Discovery has pledged to respond to the disappointment of those who appreciate sharks as something other than bloodthirsty monsters, and this year looks far more promising than usual. But in the vein of promoting interest in broader topics in shark science, let’s examine a book that does exactly that. If fascinating and informative shark programming is what you’re after, and you happen to be a paleontology fan like myself, find yourself a copy of Paleo Sharks: Survival of the Strangest, and dive right in!

We’ve all heard the trope that sharks have remained “essentially unchanged” since before the time of the dinosaurs, but what truth, if any, lies behind this assertion? For all the bluster, we rarely get any popular literature that actually examines the long history of the shark lineage. It’s really a shame, because this cultural blind spot hides a wide swath of fascinating (and sometimes literal) twists and turns. I always love to see interesting but underrepresented prehistoric creatures get their chance at the limelight, and this handy introduction to prehistoric sharks certainly delivers!

Paleo Sharks is just right for grade-school children who find themselves transfixed by both sharks and fossils, and it presents its information in a clear and easy-to-read manner. Most of the illustrations represent their subjects very well, and often in a very dynamic, Shark Week-esque “I EAT YOUR FACE!!!” manner. Each page also comes with a handy size chart on the right side, giving the reader an at-a-glace sense of how large each fishy predator could grow.

PaleoSharks Stethacanthus & Cladoselache
I like the dynamic black with orange racing stripes on the Cladoselache! Way to spice up such an important shark (essentially the shark equivalent of the “first bird”, Archaeopteryx. A “Sharkeopteryx”, if you will… I’ll see myself out).

The book is divided into three main sections devoted to each of the major geologic eras in which sharks have plied the primeval seas: Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic. Paleozoic sharks and their relatives have a reputation for truly dizzying strangeness, and so naturally this section of the book contains the most entries. Notice I said “relatives” there: the book takes full advantage of the draw of the main attraction, and uses the opportunity to introduce the reader to even lesser known yet equally fascinating prehistoric shark cousins.

PaleoSharks Promexyele full
Take for example this dynamic and colorful depiction of a school of Promexyele, with its wing-like fins. The book appropriately notes a similarity to lionfish. Despite appearances, these would not have been “flying” fish.

Many of these shark relatives have such bizarre features, scientists weren’t even sure how to reconstruct some of them initially. Helicoprion, for example, was initially known only from its whorl of teeth, provoking nearly a century of debate over how the fish actually used this contraption. Just about everyone who looked at it had a different idea of how it worked, and as Paleo Sharks came out in 2007, we can certainly forgive it for choosing the wrong reconstruction. In 2013, a team assembled by paleontologist Jesse Pruitt and paleo (and fish) artist Ray Troll finally cracked the case when a tooth whorl came to light that preserved some of the jaw structure, allowing a better idea of how everything fit together.

PaleoSharks Helicoprion full
The long history of the science behind Helicoprion is a fascinating story that deserves an entire book in its own right… and in fact I have just finished such a book! Perhaps I might review it if I ever branch out to the occasional book aimed at the other Dino Dads and Moms out there.

There are so many other fascinating species featured in the book: we haven’t even looked at the sharks after the Paleozoic! I’d love to individually examine every one of them with you, dear reader, but I don’t want to give the whole book away, and I’ve said about all I really need to for this book. Rest assured the mighty Megalodon does indeed make an appearance, in all its massive glory.

My only criticism would be the lack of entries for the Cenozoic. While Megalodon certainly overshadows any of its relatives from this era, I would have liked the book to continue its mission to shine the spotlight on lesser known species from this long span of time. Personally, I might have at least included Cretolamna, generally thought to be the common ancestor of both Megalodon and the modern Great White Shark.

Such a small criticism hardly sinks a book, however. With only a single entry that has become significantly dated, Paleo Sharks also appears to have longevity on its side as well! This is the perfect introductory text to prehistoric sharks for young readers. It presents such a broad range of species, I even ended up learning a few things myself! Dinosaurs may be my first love, but I never mind reading about other paleontological subjects. Paleo Sharks: Survival of the Strangest has more than earned the Dino Dad Stomp of Approval! I’ve found it as several of my local libraries, but you can always find it here on Amazon as well.

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