Sharks: A 400 Million Year Journey

Did Shark Week sneak up on me again? Well, that’s all the excuse I need to review another book about prehistoric sharks! I found the perfect subject not too long ago when visiting the Fort Wort Zoo for the first time (see my Instagram post here). Much to my pleasant surprise, they had an entire shelf of Rextooth Studios comic books in the gift shop, including Jurassic and SUE which I have previously reviewed. I ended up buying Sharks: A 400 Million Year Journey, which I now have the pleasure of reviewing here today!

Written and illustrated (as with all Rextooth Studios books) by Ted Rechlin, this graphic novel traces the natural history of the shark lineage over its long history on this planet, from the first not-quite-sharks of the Silurian, to the modern Great White. As with Rechlin’s other books, his crisp, clear, dynamic illustrations grab the reader’s attention, dramatically highlighting the saga of these ancient fish. The sharks he features don’t merely parade before us to check off some species checklist, either, but also show off specific hypotheses about their lives and habits that really help to flesh them out.

The most obscure example involves the eel-like Permian freshwater shark Xenacanthus, which we see fall prey to the famous sail-backed predator Dimetrodon. This directly references a hypothesis advanced by research on specimens from The Whiteside Museum of Natural History in Seymour, Texas, suggesting that the strange dorsal spike sported by xenacanthids evolved to defend against predators like Dimetrodon. I should mention that the study actually examined the closely related Orthocanthus, though as close relatives from the same time and place, the same rule presumably applies. Both sharks were included in the now-retired Safari Ltd. Prehistoric Sharks Toob, incidentally! (While we’re on the subject of museums, I took the cover photo for this review with the fantastically preserved Ptychodus specimen at another local jem, the Texas Through Time museum. Be sure to click the links above for my reviews of both institutions!)

“…then they called that artist guy, way up in Alaska / said Hey there Ratfish Ray, boy now we got somethin’ to ask ya…”

One can’t talk about Permian sharks without mentioning the oddball Helicoprion of course, even if (as the author notes) it wasn’t quite a true shark, but a member of another group of cartilaginous fish called Holocephalians, which today include the ratfish.This strange whorl-toothed shark was a particular obsession of paleoartist Ray Troll, who played a key part in helping figure out the true function of its spiral teeth, and even wrote a song about it! Readers get a good demonstration of the tooth whorl’s most likely function, shucking ammonites right out of their shells!

Of course, as long as we are discussing obligatory inclusions in a fossil shark book, there’s no escaping the mighty Megalodon. As cliche as it might seem to some paleonerds at this point, it earned it celebrity status for a reason, and the artwork below certainly does it justice! I appreciate though that Rechlin takes a moment to set up a prelude to this most famous of prehistoric sharks, depicting its ancestors in the Otodus genus swimming alongside the famous serpent-whale Basilosaurus, just as I suggested would have improved my previous shark week feature, Paleo Sharks.

The book wraps up with a look at the state of sharks worldwide today. Sharks face many difficulties in the modern world, chief among them relentless persecution by human beings. The stark black and white illustrations depicting some of the ways humans over-exploit sharks stand in sobering contrast to the bright colors typical of Rechlin’s usual illustrations.

On a more hopeful note, readers do get to see examples of conservation success stories, where marine refuges and tighter protections have allowed shark populations to rebound to more sustainable levels, all without increased risk to human activity. Sharks: A 400 Million Year Journey is an informative and engaging look at the natural history of sharks, sure to appeal to shark enthusiasts young and old, earning it my Dino Dad Stomp of Approval. My thanks to Ted Rechlin, who supplied me with high res images of my favorite pages so I could make this review look a bit nicer! For more Shark Week themed reviews, check out the links I’ve posted above, as well as my reviews of Discovering Sharks and the Sharks and Other Sea Monsters Pop-Up Book.

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