Prehistoric Shark with Enormous Mouth Discovered

A larger mouth can improve feasting, as demonstrated by a newly identified prehistoric shark that could take in enormous quantities of food.

A new large-mouthed shark dating to nearly 100 million years ago during the Dinosaur Age has just been identified.

The shark, Pseudomegachasma, lived in warm oceans and used its gigantic mouth to feast on thousands of tiny creatures, such as small crustaceans and bits of algae, collectively known as plankton. The shark will be described in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Close Encounter with a Great White Shark: Photos

Lead author Kenshu Shimada of DePaul University told Discovery News that "this extinct plankton-eating shark could have looked like a sand tiger shark with a large mouth equipped with many tiny teeth."

Modern sand tiger sharks are known for their protruding teeth, small eyes and pointy snouts, which give them a menacing look. These existent sharks, classified as "vulnerable" by IUCN Red List of endangered animals, pose little threat to humans, however.

An extremely rare species of modern deepwater shark, the megamouth, also has a connection to the Dino-Era big-mouthed beast.

"The fossil shark," Shimada explained, "has a tooth design that is nearly identical to the living megamouth shark, hence the new genus name Pseudomegachasma."

Video: Shark Embryos & Nature's Other Cannibals

Shimada and his team made the determinations after analyzing recently collected tiny fossil teeth from Cretaceous rocks. The scientists believe that at least two species fall under the new Pseudomegachasma lineage: Pseudomegachasma casei from Russia and Pseudomegachasma comanchensis from the United States The fossil record suggests that representatives of the newly identified shark lineage first emerged in a shallow-water environment in Russia before later migrating to the North American Western Interior Seaway that once split North America into two land masses.

The prehistoric sharks already have at least one claim to scientific fame.

Could a Prehistoric 60-Foot Shark Still Exist?

Pseudomegachasma (collectively referring to the species falling under that genus) appears to be the oldest known plankton-feeding shark in the fossil record that evolved independent of the four known lineages of modern-day plankton-feasting cartilaginous fish: the megamouth sharks, basking sharks, whale sharks, and manta rays.

So the evolutionary history of plankton-feeding sharks may have been much more complex than previously thought. It's now known that from very early on, sharks were taking advantage of plentiful plankton.

To give some idea on how long ago that was, consider that Pseudomegachasma was thriving in ocean waters around 85 million years before infamous Megalodon - the world's largest ever shark - is believed to have lived.

Recreation of Pseudomegachasma.

Great white sharks are the biggest predatory fish in the world. And despite their mass, they can travel at ridiculous speeds, at over 35 miles per hour, to track their prey. Marine biologist Joe Butler traveled with two friends off Hans Bay, South Africa, in hopes of seeing some great whites. Which they did. See more of Butler's story on a

new episode

of

This Happened Here

on the Seeker Network.

Shark Files: Shark Bite Risk Down 91 Percent Since 1950

"In order to bring them in closer, to give everyone a good look, the crew would employ a tuna head on the end of a long rope and drag it out of the way before the shark had a chance to grab it," Butler said.

Shark Files: Great White Shark Photobombs Friend

This amazing photo, taken from inside the cage, shows the shark grabbing the bait before anyone had a chance to react. "There's actually quite a sobering moment when you realize that proverbially you're the fish out of water, this is their home, and you’re not actually supposed to be there," Butler said.

Shark 'Highways' Crisscross The World: Photos

"I think a lot people have this image in their head of them being sort of an idealistic predator, but in reality these animals are still quite vulnerable. However, seeing them in their natural environment is something I would recommend to anyone in a heartbeat." Above, Butler (left), prepares to cage dive with his two classmates.

Shark Files: Scary Footage Shows 15-Ft Great White In Mass.