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Pocatello museum to open Helicoprion exhibit

An ancient, Idaho-based shark is coming to the Idaho Museum of Natural History in Pocatello for the first time.

On Saturday, the doors to the museum will open into what curators are saying is the only exhibit in the world to bring the helicoprion back to life, sort of.

Idaho State University’s associate professor of geosciences and the museum’s head research curator of earth sciences, Dr. Leif Tapanila, said everyone working on bringing this display to the museum is excited to be putting Pocatello on the map.

“We are really, really pumped about this because for the very first time we’re going to be showing some of the unique fossils that come from the very ground here in southeast Idaho,” Tapanila said.

Tapanila said that more than 270 million years ago, the entire state of Idaho was submerged shallow, warm water, making the state actually part of the Pacific Ocean.

Millions of years later, scientists such as Tapanila and his crew are discovering the fossils of the helicoprion, which once inhabited the area Idahoans call home.

“So, there was this mystery and it turns out here at ISU, we are uniquely capable of answering that question because we have the best material since that animal comes from this part of the world,” Tapanila said.

Artist Ray Troll has been interested in the ancient creature ever since he stumped on some fossils in a Los Angeles museum 20 years ago that were tossed aside in the museum’s basement.

“Nobody has ever understood this,” Troll said. “It has blown paleontologists’ minds for over 100 years, and nobody has ever figured it out. So, that’s when the little worm got in my brain.”

Three years ago, Troll got in touch with Tapanila after one of his undergraduate students similarly found helicoprion fossils tossed in among one of ISU’s fossil storage rooms. Until they were rediscovered in that basement three years ago, they had just sat there for more than 50 years.

Now, thanks to Tapanila’s research and Troll’s artwork, they are bringing the creatures back to life, giving the helicoprion the most accurate features that have never been seen before now.

One of the displays shows a 15-foot fiberglass helicoprion hanging from the ceiling. However, the more life-size model is the gargantuan head of another one bursting through a living room wall. Tapanila said these creatures were actually between 25-to-30 feet long, making them the largest known creatures to have roamed the sea during that time and also making them larger than the biggest great white shark known to man.

These creatures are unique because they did not lose their teeth. Instead, they held onto their baby teeth, and their jaw grew in a spiral with the teeth still attached.

“This is the one animal that cheated the tooth fairy,” Tapanila said.

Some scientists studying the Helicoprion still debate whether or not this animal’s unique jawline made this a threatening predator or not. Some say it was only able to eat soft seafood such as squid. Others believe the helicoprion attacked from beneath and chomped its prey in half.

Either way, its massive size was its best defense.

After 15 million years, the helicoprion became extinct.

The exhibit’s opening day is Saturday and will run until the end of this year.

Follow Kaitlin on Twitter: @KaitlinLoukides

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