Ancient shark teeth give clues to future of Arctic climate change

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A new study of sharks that lived in warm Arctic waters millions of years ago suggests that some shark species could handle the falling Arctic salinity that may come with rising temperatures.

The Arctic today is best known for its tundra and polar bear population, but roughly 38 to 53 million years ago during the Eocene epoch, the Arctic was like a huge temperate forest with brackish water, home to a variety of animal life, including ancestors of tapirs, hippo-like creatures, crocodiles and giant tortoises. Much of what is known about the region during this period comes from well-documented terrestrial deposits. Marine records have been harder to come by.

A new study of shark teeth taken from a coastal Arctic Ocean site has expanded the understanding of Eocene marine life. Leading the study was Sora Kim, the T.C. Chamberlin Postdoctoral Fellow in Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, in coordination with Jaelyn Eberle at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and their three co-authors. Their findings were published online June 30 by the journal Geology.

The Arctic is of special interest today because it is increasing in temperature at twice the global rate. No one knows exactly what effect climate change could have on various species; scientists believe some species will be at risk, though others might thrive. According to Kim, past climate change in the Arctic can serve as a proxy to better understand our current climate change and aid future predictions. The Eocene epoch, she said, is like a “deep-time analogue for what’s going to happen if we don’t curb CO2 emissions today, and potentially what a runaway greenhouse effect looks like.”

Before this study, marine records primarily came from deep-sea cores pulled from a central Arctic Ocean site called the Lomonosov Ridge. Kim and Eberle studied shark teeth from a new coastal site on Banks Island. This allowed them to better understand the changes in ocean water salinity across a broader geographic area during a time of elevated global temperatures. Shark teeth are one of the few available vertebrate marine fossils for this time period. They preserve well and are incredibly abundant.

To arrive at their results, Kim isolated and measured the mass ratio of oxygen isotopes 18 to 16 found in the prepared enameloid (somewhat different from human tooth enamel) of the shark teeth. Sharks constantly exchange water with their environment, so the isotopic oxygen ratio found in the teeth is directly regulated by water temperature and salinity. With assumptions made about temperatures, the group was able to focus on extrapolating salinity levels of the water.

The results were surprising. “The numbers I got back were really weird,” Kim said. “They looked like fresh water.” The sand tiger sharks she was studying are part of a group called lamniform sharks, which prefer to stay in areas of high salinity.

“As more freshwater flows into the Arctic Ocean due to global warming, I think we are going to see it become more brackish,” said Eberle, associate professor of geological sciences at CU-Boulder. “Maybe the fossil record can shed some light on how the groups of sharks that are with us today may fare in a warming world.”

Because the teeth are 40 to 50 million years old, many tests were run to eliminate any possible contaminates, but the results were still the same. These findings suggest that sharks may be able to cope with rises in temperature and the subsequent decrease of water salinity. It has long been known that sharks are hardy creatures. They have fossil records dating back some 400 million years, surviving multiple mass extinctions, and have shown great ecological plasticity thus far.

Additionally, these results provide supporting evidence for the idea that the Arctic Ocean was most likely isolated from global waters.

“Through an analysis of fossil sand tiger shark teeth from the western Arctic Ocean, this study offers new evidence for a less salty Arctic Ocean during an ancient ‘greenhouse period,’” said Yusheng (Chris) Liu, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Earth Sciences, which co-funded the research with NSF’s Division of Polar Programs. “The results also confirm that the Arctic Ocean was isolated during that long-ago time.”

While Kim has hopes to expand her research both geographically and in geologic time in an effort to better understand the ecology and evolution of sharks, she remarked that “working with fossils is tricky because you have to work within the localities that are preserved. “You can’t always design the perfect experiment.”


Citation: “Evidence from shark teeth for a brackish Arctic Ocean in the Eocene greenhouse,” by Sora L. Kim, Jaelyn J. Eberle, David M. Bell, Dewayne A. Fox and Aspen Padilla, Geology, doi:10.1130/G35675.1.

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Sora Kim
Sand tiger sharks
Arctic sharks - map
Arctic sharks site
Arctic shark teeth
Sora Kim

Sora Kim is the T.C. Chamberlin Postdoctoral Fellow in Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago. In her latest study, she examined environmental conditions of the Arctic Ocean during the Eocene epoch (38 to 53 million years ago), as a prehistoric proxy for what could happen to the region if modern Earth experiences a runaway greenhouse effect.

Photo by Robert Kozloff
Sand tiger sharks

Both graceful and docile, this modern sand tiger shark swims through a school of round scad fish in the coastal waters off North Carolina. Modern sand tigers prefer waters of high salinity, though they tolerate brackish waters for short periods as well. 

Photo by Erik Rebeck
Arctic sharks - map

This map and the inset show the location of Banks Island and Aulavik National Park, which ajoins the western Artic Ocean. Jaelyn Eberle of the University of Colorado, Boulder, has led multiple expeditions into the region, where she has recovered abundant fossil sharks teeth from a coastal site in the park. 

Courtesy of Jaelyn Eberle
Arctic sharks site

A group of orange tents in the middle of this photograph marks the destination of one of Jaelyn Eberle’s expeditions to Aulavik National Park on Banks Island in the western Arctic Ocean. Here is where the Eames Rivers weaves its way into the Arctic Ocean. This area marks one of only two known sites that yield vertebrate marine fossils from the Eocene epoch.

Courtesy of Jaelyn Eberle
Arctic shark teeth

Sora Kim has analyzed oxygen 18 and oxygen 16—two isotopes of the oxygen atom that contain only slight subatomic variations—of fossil and modern sharks teeth for insights into the potential adaptability of sand tigers to global warming. These teeth come from the Eocene epoch, which ended approximately 38 million years ago. 

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