Sharks on the Prairie

By James Manni

I was swapping hunting and fishing stories with Keith Houghton, the owner and operator of Ringneck Ranch in Tipton, KS, when he told me a story I thought could only be bullshit. He said a guy had pulled a 17-foot shark off the property over 10 years ago–not out of one of the ponds, but from under a shale slide. 

The next day after the pheasant hunt, Mr. Houghton took me to the dig site and further explained the story.

In the middle of the prairie, a group of fossil hunters discovered a vertebrae out of the shale while looking for dinosaur bones. Mike Everhart, the paleontologist who realized that they had found a preserved shark specimen, quickly contacted another expert, Dr. Kenshu Shimada, from DePaul University. The Dr. and his team began a large-scale excavation of the area. 

During the dig they found 134 teeth, 61 additional vertebrae and 23 armored scales. Paleontologists aged the shark to be around 91 million years old.

The discovery was groundbreaking not only because of the amount of the shark preserved and collected, but also because it was the discovery of a new species–Cretodus Houghtonorum–named after the property owners. The shark could grow up to 22 feet and is a distant cousin to great white and tiger sharks.

Cretodus Houghtonorum was not the only find in the area. Co-located with the original specimen, teeth from another species of shark and two fins from a third type of shark were dug up. Researchers think that the original specimen had eaten a smaller shark and then in turn was scavenged by the third after it died. 

These sharks didn’t just materialize from the ground; they actually swam to modern-day Kansas using the Western Interior Seaway. This ancient seaway once stretched from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico and was over 1,000 miles wide at its largest point as it stretched from the Rockies in the West to the Appalachians in the East. 

The “Kansas Shark” is currently residing at the Sternberg museum in western Kansas, but a better trip is to get a group of friends together and make a pilgrimage to the dig site. Even if you aren’t a huge fan of fossils and rocks, there’s plenty of roosters along the way.