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Squalodon: The Shark Toothed Whale - Facts and Information


Squalodon: The Shark Toothed Whale - Facts and Information

Squalodon Facts

My rendition of Squalodon calvertensis (Long-Snouted Shark Toothed Whale). Notice the large pectoral fins, reduced dorsal fin, mobile neck, the long beak, and the front teeth protruding from the jaw, creating small tusks.

Fast Facts about the Shark Toothed Whale

Squalodon Fossils from Plate 18 of Kellogg's 1923 paper in the Proceedings of the United States National Museum, Vol 62, Article 16. (Public Domain)

Name: Squalodon - Greek Meaning: Squal = Shark and Odon = Tooth. "Shark Tooth" or the "Shark Toothed Whale". The name comes from the serrated shark like teeth of the whale.

Squalodons, like all whales, are Mammals.
Class: Mammalia - Order: Artiodactyla - Family: Platanistoidea - Superfamily: Squalodontidae - Genus: Squalodon - Species: up to 7 species

Age: Oligocene to Miocene
Squalodons lived around 33 to 14 million years ago.

Distribution: Global
Fossils of squalodons are found throughout the world in Oligocene and Miocene marine sediments, from North America and Europe to Australia.

Physical Appearance: Strange and Archaic!
Squalodons have an odd appearance. They have a complex dentition with primitive teeth (all other whales and dolphins have a simple dnetition). Their teeth are serrated, like a shark. They have very long and narrow snouts, and two "tusk" teeth that stick out of the front of their jaws.

Body Size: 10 feet (3 meters)
Squalodons are either large dolphins or small whales. They can reach a length of around 10 feet.

Their cheek teeth are triangular and serrated like a shark. They have long incisors near the front of their mouths, and very front incisors stick nearly straight out of the jaw.

Because their dentition is a cutting and grasping dentition, they would have been well suited to eat a variety of prey. However, since their long snouts were very narrow and the animals size was not very large, they probably would not have eaten large prey. Therefore, their diet was probably similar to todays dolphins: small bony fish, squid, and crustaceans.

Fun Facts:
1.Squalodons are one of the earliest cetaceans (dolphin/whale) to develop echolocation.

2.Squalodons are also the last cetacean to have a complex dentition, meaning their teeth were different depending on the location in the jaw.

Squalodons: The Details

General Overview

Squalodons lived from the early-middle Oligocene into the middle Miocene, roughly 33 to 14 million years ago. The squalodon genus belongs to the Odontocete Order, the toothed whales. Specifically it belongs to the Squalodontidae superfamily. This superfamily is named after the shark squallus, since its' cheek teeth superficially resemble the teeth of a squallus shark; hence the name "shark toothed whale".

The Squalodontidae superfamily contains three different groups of medium-sized (roughly 3 meters in length - 10 ft) shark toothed whales. They are the short-snouted shark toothed whales (prososqualodon), the medium-snouted shark toothed whales (phoberodon), and the long-snouted shark toothed whales. This last group contains the genus squalodon.

Modern and Archaic Features - The Teeth

A picture of the squalodon calvertensis skull from the Calvert Cliffs on public display at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington DC (Specimen # USNM PAL 206288). The front maxila and the back of the skull have been restored.

A strange mix of archaic and modern features characterizes these interesting prehistoric whales. One of the most noticeable archaic features of squalodons is their complex dentition. While other toothed whales were evolving simple conical teeth at this time, Squalodontidae retained their primitive teeth that their ancestors (the archaeocetis) had. For example their dentition is complex, their teeth are widely spaced apart, and their cheek teeth are triangular and serrated for grasping and cutting. An illustration of this similar archaeoceti dentition can be seen below.

My illustration of a squalodon skull compared to an archaeoceti's skull. The archaeoceti illustrated here is an Eocene zygorhiza, which was actually much larger than a squalodon. Notice how similar the molars are.

Modern and Archaic Features - The Neck

Another archaic quality the Squalodontidae possess is their necks. The necks are more compressed than archaeoceti; however they were probably more mobile than the other "modern looking" toothed whales at the time. Finally, paleontologists believe the dorsal fins were larger than archaeocetis, but still somewhat reduced.

Modern and Archaic Features - Blowhole and Echolocation

Despite these ancient features on Squalodontidae, they also had a mix of modern characteristics. For example, their craniums were well compressed and their rostrums were telescoped outward. This compression moved the nostrils toward the top of the head, giving them a similar appearance to modern toothed whales. Finally, squalodon skulls show evidence for the first appearance of echolocation. An illustration of the changes can be seen below.

This illustration shows a comparison of three skulls, zygorhiza, squalodon, and phoca (a modern dolphin).
Notice how the squalodon has it's nasal passages upward toward the cranium, instead of on the rostrum as the zygorhiza has (the nasal passages are shaded in black, the zygorhiza has one large one on its snout, whereas the other skulls have two small ones further back.) This is remarkably similar to the nasal passage placement on modern dolphins, thus showing modern characteristics. Also notice how asymmetric modern dolphin skulls are (the asymmmetry aids in echolocation). In reality, the eocene zyghoriza is much larger than a squalodon and dolphin

Extinction and Fossil Occurrence

These strange looking creatures could be found throughout the world in the Oligocene and Miocene. However, squalodons became extinct in the middle of the Miocene and left no descendants. Now, occasionally one can find an isolated tooth or bone from one of these great beasts while beach combing along the shores below the Calvert Cliffs of Maryland, or searching the Miocene and Oligocene exposures in NC and SC.

There are at least two species of squalodon found along the Atlantic Coastal deposits. They all look similar, but are different in size, and have slight differences in tooth morphology. Squalodon whitmorei (Dooley, 2005) is the largest species, and Squalodon calvertensis (Kellogg, 1923) is the slightly smaller species with a longer snout. There may be an additional undescribed species at the Calvert Cliffs of Maryland, and there are possibly other species of squalodon found in Europe (mainly Italy and France). Other species of squalodon have been found in Australia and New Zealand

Squalodon atlanticus is a common species name attributed to numerous specimens, however, S. atlanticus is probably invalid. For an excellent explanation, Dr. Alton Dooley (THE expert on Squalodons) has a good summary on the VMNH website here.

References / Works Cited

Carrol, R. (1988). Vertebrate Paleontology and Evolution. NY: W.H. Freeman & Company.

Mchedlidze G.A.; Translated by Chakravarthy, R. (1984). General Features of the Paleobiological Evolution of Cetacea. New Delhi: Oxonian Press. Translated for Smithsonian Institution Libraries.

Recommended Books

The Walking Whales: From Land to Water in Eight Million Years
By: J. G. M. "Hans" Thewissen, 2014
This is a great book for learning about whale evolution. It's the most up to date book (2014), and has all of the recent discoveries over the past decade. Hans Thewissen gives a firsthand account of the fossil discoveries, from their origins as small land dwelling mammals to modern whales. He is also one of the leading researchers in the field of whale paleontology. This is a great book for if you are interested in understanding whale evolution. Check it out.

Cetacean Paleobiology (TOPA Topics in Paleobiology)
by Felix G. Marx,? Olivier Lambert, and Mark D. Uhen, Copyright 2016

From Squalodons and Basilosaurus to Maiaicetus, this is it! A treatise on whale evolution complete with many of the new fossil discoveries and new genetic research! It covers the global cetacean fossil record, the move from land to sea, diversity in different time periods, evolutionary changes, and much much more! If you are crazy about the evolution of whales, you must have this! You can browse through the table of contents and select pages via the link.

Squalodon Fossil Identification:

Isolated teeth cannont be identified to a species level. One needs skull material to determine an exact species of squalodon.

Below are fossil identification images for Squalodon:

Squalodon Teeth

Identification image for Fossil Squalodon teeth. The molars and incisors look very different.
Although this image says S. ?calvertensis, species determination cannot be done on isolated teeth, as there is tooth variation between individual animals. North Carolina.

Squalodon Jaw Section

Identification image for a Squalodon jaw. Squalodon jaw fragments are very easy to identify, as they had very large teeth compared to other odontocetes living at that time. Because of this, they have very large root holes, whereas most of the other odontocetes had very small root holes.

This is an image of another squalodon jaw that was excavated from the Calvert Cliffs of Maryland.

For more images of thsi squalodon and the excavation, go to the Squalodon Excavation Article.

Kellogg's Squalodon 1923 Plates

Kellogg first described Squalodon calvertensis from the Calvert cliffs in Maryland in 1923. His publication has identification plates for the partial specimens he described. Below are a few plates from his publication:
Kellogg, Remington. (1923). Description of two squalodonts recently discovered in the Calvert Cliffs, Maryland: and notes on the shark-toothed cetaceans. No. 2462 PP 1-69. April 24.

Squalodon calvertensis - Dorsal view of the fossil skull from Kellogg 1923.

Squalodon calvertensis - Lateral view of the fossil skull from Kellogg 1923.
Notice the large tooth sockets

Squalodon calvertensis - Molar and premolar teeth from Kellogg 1923.

Squalodon calvertensis - Fossil incisor teeth from Kellogg 1923.

Plate 16 from Kellogg 1923 - Squalodon calvertensis - Fossil Ribs

Squalodon calvertensis - Anterior dorsal vertebra from Kellogg 1923.

Whales that are similar to Squalodons

In the Oligocene time period, 34 to 23 million years ago, early toothed whales were fairly common. There were different families that all had similar dentitions as the squalodon. However, by the start of the Miocene, around 23 million years ago, most had become extinct.

Fortunately, Oligocene sediments along coastal South Carolina are plentiful, formations like the Wando, Chandler Bridge, and Ashley formation periodically reveal new types of early whales. The Mace Brown Museum in Charleston has skulls of some of these unique fossils on display. Below are a few examples of these odd Oligocene whales.

This is the skull of an unnamed whale from the xenorophid family. It's an Oligocene fossil from the Ashley formation in South Carolina.

This is a 28 - 26 m.y.o. Eosqualodon skull from the Chandler Bridge formation. Eosqualodon belongs to the same family as Squalodon.

This is a small cetacean skull that had a similar dentition to a squalodon. It's also from the Oligocene. Notice the three serrated, triangular teeth sticking out of the jaw. It was being prepped during one of my visits.

Sample Squalodon Fossils

This squalodon tooth with a broken root is probably a molar.
Size: ~1" (25mm)
Formation: Pungo River
Location: Aurora, North Carolina

This is another molar with a broken root.
Size: ~1 1/16" (27mm)
Formation: Pungo River
Location: Aurora, North Carolina

This is a squalodon incisor. Unfortunately the tip and root are broken
Size: ~1 1/16" (27mm)
Formation: Pungo River
Location: Aurora, North Carolina

This is probably a worn incisor (tip of tooth, and bottom of root are missing). It would have been large if complete, so it may be a Squalodon whitmorei.
Size: ~ 2 1/4" (57mm)
Formation: Calvert Formation
Location: Calvert Cliffs of Maryland

This is a small jaw section from a Squalodon. Notice the large tooth socket.
Size: ~3" (76mm)
Formation: Pungo River
Location: Aurora, North Carolina

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