Peculiar Pittsburgh

You can’t handle the tooth about Pittsburgh’s prehistoric sharks

Happy Shark Week.


Since Sunday, I’ve binge-watched enough Shark Week to maybe someday run for president and almost all of it was memorable.

There was the show with Guy Fieri launching a shark-bait bazooka into the ocean, followed by shows about alien sharks, mega sharks, airborne sharks, one titled “Shaq does Shark Week” and another “Sharks gone wild.”

It’s easy, though, for me to be cavalier living in land-locked Pittsburgh, where Mark Cuban is the closest thing to a native shark species as we have.

It wasn’t always this way, though.

Amy C. Henrici, a collection manager with the Section of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, said sharks inhabited Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh region about 331-279 million years ago during the late Carboniferous–early Permian time periods.

In fact, most of the shark fossils in the museum’s collection were recovered from Pittsburgh and its surrounding areas.

“This area formed the shoreline of a large seaway, so some sharks inhabited marine waters and others fresh water,” Henrici told The Incline by email.

There are a few caveats: If you’re picturing preserved, ancient yinzer sharks exhumed whole in all their dead-eyed glory by crews at the site of a future Eat’n Park, that’s not usually how it goes.

“Because sharks’ skeletons are made almost entirely of cartilage and connective tissue, they do not preserve very well as fossils. Shark occurrences in the fossil record in this region are based on teeth and spines. Despite this, a variety of sharks are known from Pennsylvania.”

Here are a few of the ancient species found in the Pittsburgh-area, identified by such fragments or remnants and now housed in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s collection, and Henrici’s descriptions of them:

  • Eugenodontiformes, marine sharks represented by Agassizodus and Campodus, had large tooth whorls on their lower jaws.
A Campodus's tooth whorl is pictured.

A Campodus's tooth whorl is pictured.

  • Ctenacathiformes sharks were predatory and inhabited both marine and freshwater rivers and lakes. They tended to be under 50 centimeters long, though some reached 4 meters, and many species had a large, serrated spine that extended backwards from the neck region.
  • Xenacanthiform sharks inhabited freshwater and had a long dorsal fin that extended along the back and a large spine that extended backward from the neck region, which might have been venomous  — as in stingrays.
The Xenacanthiform sharks in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's collection would have looked something like this.

The Xenacanthiform sharks in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's collection would have looked something like this.

  • Hybodontiformes sharks were represented by Hybodus, a marine, predatory shark that reached 2.5 meters in length and had well-developed fin spines and broad teeth.
The Hybodus shark would have looked something like this.

The Hybodus shark would have looked something like this.

  • Cochliodontiformes were marine and had a pavement of flat teeth adapted to crushing hard-shelled invertebrates. Asipdodus and Deltodus were present in this area.

But these sharks are all long gone.

What about today?

That question led me to the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium and one of the more unnerving answers I received on this expedition. After prefacing my email with the line — “they say there are no stupid questions” — I asked Curator of Aquatic Life Paul Moylett if there were any sharks in Pittsburgh’s three rivers or anywhere on those rivers.

“My answer to this question is, anything is possible,” Moylett began.

I sat up straighter in my chair.

He continued, “What we’ve learned over the years is that once we think we can predict wildlife behavior and mother nature we are eventually proven wrong. I can tell you that in certain parts of the world Bull sharks have been known to swim over two thousand miles upriver and that is roughly the amount of miles it is from the Gulf of Mexico to Pittsburgh via the Mississippi Ohio Rivers.”

So, in summary, Pittsburgh was once a shark-topia — and there’s still a chance a stray shark could make it here, although this is no reason to cancel your weekend kayaking plans.

Additionally, there are very real sharks — six different species — on display at PPG Aquarium, some with adorable names like Zebra Sharks, Cat sharks and Pajama sharks. And you don’t even need a high-powered bait bazooka to find them.

Happy Shark Week, everyone.