Why do people collect shark teeth?

Cheese! Multiple rows of teeth are clearly visible on this sand tiger shark. See more shark pictures.
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Shark teeth can be found on just about any beach, but some areas are better known than others for the amount and quality of teeth that can be found. Venice, Fla., on the Gulf of Mexico, is the self-proclaimed "shark tooth capital of the world." The gulf has had sharks living there for millions of years, and the erosion of the beaches in Venice make it a hot spot for unearthing these buried sea collectibles.

Something that many people may not realize is that sharks have no bones. Their skeleton is made entirely of cartilage, a kind of elastic tissue. Cartilage is softer than bone and will dissolve over the years in the ocean's salt water. Once the cartilage of a dead shark is gone, the only thing left is its razor-sharp teeth -- made of calcified tissue called dentine and hard enamel. These teeth settle on the ocean floor and eventually get washed closer to the beach where tooth hunters gather them up for their collections.

Sharks shed their teeth continually over the course of their lives. At any given time, a shark will have between five and 15 rows of teeth growing behind their functional front chompers. As the front teeth fall out, the ones behind them assume the duty as the mature denture. And unlike human teeth, shark's teeth don't have roots to hold them in place, which helps explain why they fall out with such frequency. A tooth is usually in service for about a week, but some can be replaced in as little as 24 hours.

But why are people so into collecting the teeth? An interesting fact on the next page may help answer this question.

 

Shark Teeth Facts: What's so special about a shark's tooth?

Fossilized shark teeth
Fossilized shark teeth
Siede Preis/Getty Images

If you don't know much about shark-tooth collecting, then you may not know that these relics are more than just teeth -- they're fossils. Sharks have been living on Earth for about 400 million years. When a shark dies and its cartilage dissolves, the teeth fall to the bottom of the ocean and get covered with sandy sediment. This sediment prevents oxygen and destructive bacteria from reaching the tooth, and it fossilizes over the course of about 10,000 years. That's why most of the teeth that are found and collected aren't white, but gray, black or brown -- the color of the sediment. The tooth absorbs the minerals in the sediment and these minerals eventually replace the dentine and enamel that makes up the tooth. Voila, you have a fossil on your hands.

The megalodon compared to a typical great white
HSW 2008

Like all other fossils, shark's teeth can be valuable, so they're readily bought, sold and traded by enthusiasts and collectors. The most valuable of all is the tooth of the giant megalodon shark. This bad boy was a prehistoric beast that makes the modern great white look like your average goldfish. Great whites these days vary in size from 7 to 20 feet (2 to 6 meters). The prehistoric megalodon may have grown to a whopping 60 feet (18 meters).

The tooth of the megalodon ranges in size from 3.5 to 7 inches (89 to 177 mm) in length and can weigh more than a pound (.4 kg). Locating any megalodon tooth is a great find, and anything over 4 inches is rare and valuable. These teeth can go for as much as several thousand dollars each on the auction Web site eBay, depending on the size and the location where it was unearthed. The other factor that determines the value of the tooth is the shape that it's in. Even though teeth are fairly well ­preserved as fossils, they can be slightly eroded and contain chips and cracks from undersea rocks and coral.

So one reason people collect shark teeth is the shear monetary value. There are dozens of Internet sites devoted to the sale of these collectibles. Another reason is that on any given hunt, you may find a tooth from a giant, prehistoric predator that's 10 to 50 million years old. Most people would agree that digging up a 1-pound fossilized shark tooth as big as your hand is pretty cool. We'll give you some tips on the best way and best places to find these valuable fossils on the next page.

How to Find a Shark Tooth

The size of a megalodon shark tooth is frightening.
The size of a megalodon shark tooth is frightening.
Nick Caloyianis /Getty Images

Sure, you can go online and buy a tooth from another collector -- and many enthusiasts do just that. But the most fun and rewarding way to do it is to get out into the water and find one with your bare hands. It can be as relaxing as a walk on the beach. In fact, there's not much more to it than that.

Low tide is the best time to find these sharp fossils. The water is calmer and clearer at low tide, giving you better visibility. The receding waters also expose some of the best areas to look for teeth. These areas are the drop-offs that occur just along the shore line -- where the surf goes back into sea, there's commonly a 6 to 12-inch drop in the sand level, called a "wash-in." Rocky sediment collects here and you can usually find a large amount of sea rocks, shells and, if you're lucky, shark teeth. Morning is a good time to search, if for no other reason than the fact that there are fewer people around to contend with.

Teeth can also be found on the beach itself, or even far away from the water. In fact, the inland town of Bakersfield, Calif., is known for producing some of the largest megalodon teeth ever found. After all, it used to be underwater, as did the entire state of Florida. Another tip when searching along the shoreline is to concentrate on areas where the sand is darker. It's also a good idea to head out after a storm. Ocean storms typically bring in all kinds of debris to deposit on the beach, including teeth.

You might want to carry along a small shovel, gardening pick and a sieve to sift through the sand -- and don't forget a bag to carry your booty. Once you have your teeth, you can check online or get a book to help you identify what kind of shark it came from. Then it's up to you exactly what you do with it. Avid collectors typically display the teeth in framed boxes, and many people include display cards indicating the species and the date and location where the tooth was found. Other people sell or trade with other collectors if the tooth is valuable. You can also make the tooth into jewelry if that's your thing -- shark tooth necklaces are a hot commodity among the Jimmy Buffett crowd.

For more information on sharks and other kinds of collecting, please clean the sand from your toes and flip-flop your way to the next page.

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Sources

  • "A 'Quick & Dirty' Guide to Fossil and Recent Shark Teeth." elasmo-research.org, 2008. http://www.elasmo-research.org/education/evolution/guide.htm
  • "Shark School." San Diego Natural History Museum. sdhnm.org. http://www.sdnhm.org/kids/sharks/faq.html#teeth
  • "Shark Teeth from Around the World!" sharteeth.com, 2008. http://www.sharkteeth.com/site/index.cfm?action=what_is
  • "Sharks Teeth." veniceflorida.com.http://www.veniceflorida.com/shark.htm
  • Baldwin, Mike. "Hunting for fossil sharks' teeth." memphisgeology.org, June 21, 2000. http://www.memphisgeology.org/p_sharks_teeth.htm
  • Garcia, Frank A. and Miller, Donald S. "Discovering Fossils." Stockpole Books, 1998.
  • Howard, Willie. "Diving for shark teeth and bites of history." Cyber Diver News Network, November 11, 2004. http://www.cdnn.info/eco/e041111/e041111.html
  • Jordan, Kyle. "Day tripping with Kyle Jordan: Shark Tooth Capital of the World." winknews.com, April 11, 2008. http://www.winknews.com/features/daytripping/17550249.html