Ancient shark skeleton, hidden in Manitoba museum’s collection for 40 years, may be 1st of its kind

The skeleton of an ancient shark that could be the first of its kind is now on display at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre in Morden, Man. — and it was only recently “rediscovered” after sitting in the museum’s collection for decades.

“It’s a very special shark for many reasons,” Adolfo Cuetara, the fossil centre’s executive director, told CBC News in an interview. “It’s highly possible that we are talking about a new species.”

Because of that, the shark has not been given a scientific name yet, said Cuetara. It’s unofficially been named “Dave,” in honour of the owner of the farm just west of Morden where it was found nearly 50 years ago.

The centre found Dave in its collections room eight years ago, though the shark fossil had been there for much longer.

“It was discovered in 1975, but it was just hidden in the collections room for more than 40 years,” said Cuetara.

An image of a large shark is seen next to the fossil skeleton of the shark.
Dave has been on display at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre since March. The fossil was unearthed in 1975, but was hidden in the centre’s collection until a few years ago. (Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre)

It was wrapped up in a plaster field jacket in a safe in the museum’s collection room, and “nobody was thinking that there was something special in there,” Cuetara said.

He explained that museums sometimes don’t have the capacity to comb through every piece in their collections — but a few years ago, museum employees decided to open the plaster jacket up to see what was inside, and were surprised to discover it was a shark.

After rediscovering the fossil, Dave was finally put on display in the museum.

Dave is nearly four-and-a-half metres (15 feet) long and is one of the biggest, best-preserved shark skeletons in the world, Cuetara said.

Complete shark skeletons are difficult to find because they are made up of soft cartilage, which does not preserve well, he said.

Dave is a filter-feeder shark with no teeth who got his nutrients by absorbing them out of the water, said Cuetara.

After finding the fossil, the centre dedicated the last few years to preparing a display for Dave, which launched earlier this year.

Radio Noon Manitoba7:04A unique fossil shark skeleton is being unveiled in Morden this week.

Fossilized shark skeletons are extremely rare, but one found in Manitoba is going on display at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre in Morden. Host Marjorie Dowhos spoke to Executive Director Adolfo Cuetara about the unique discovery.

Cuetara now hopes an upcoming scientific paper will clear the mystery around the species of the shark.

“There’s research underway right now,” he said. “Probably it’s going to be a new species, but we have to wait for the scientific paper.”

More changes at Morden museum

The fossil discovery centre in Morden — a city of 10,000 in southern Manitoba — is no stranger to big attractions.

It’s long been home to “Bruce,” believed to be the world’s largest publicly displayed mosasaur — a type of marine reptile dominant during the later age of the dinosaurs, around 80 to 66 million years ago.

The museum also says it has Canada’s largest collection of marine reptile fossils.

Bruce the mosasaur was found in Thornhill, just west of Morden, in a farmer’s field in 1974. It’s now on display at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

After more than two years of pandemic disruptions, the fossil centre is once again welcoming visitors, with about 500 students coming through so far this season, Cuetara said.

The return of visitors is coinciding with a few new expansions at the museum, which is currently housed in the basement of the city’s Access Event Centre.

The fossil museum is now in the preliminary stages of building a new standalone facility, Cuetara said. The new 40,000-square-foot facility will focus on a more interactive experience for visitors using technology, projections and movement sensors, straying from what many think of as the standard model for a museum.

“People don’t maybe learn in that classical way anymore,” said Cuetara. “Or maybe there’s just more ways of learning.”

The centre is also building a 45-hectare (110-acre) field station in the Manitoba escarpment around the Morden area, where the centre conducts its excavation work during the May to October field season.

The new field station will offer day camps for kids ages five to 12, Cuetara said. Construction of the field station will finish at the end of this summer in preparation for centre’s popular dig tours in 2023.

The centre has also developed an interactive collection management system that will let the public virtually explore 20,000 fossils from over 1,500 different species.

“We are uploading thousands of photos, thousands of papers,” said Cuetara. “You can go through the collections room virtually.”

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