What Do an ’80s Video Game and a Prehistoric Shark Have in Common?

Galaga, the 1980s arcade game in which a lone spaceship fends off an array of approaching alien craft, might not be the first thing you think of when learning about a prehistoric carpet shark species. But in the case of the newly discovered Galagadon nordquistae, the two have something in common.

The Galagadon was recently unearthed from an archaeological dig site in South Dakota near the spot where “Sue,” one of the world’s most famous T. rex fossils (and definitely the one with the biggest Twitter following), was also discovered. Scientists named the ancient shark after the classic game due to the odd shape of its teeth, which distinctly resemble the design of Galaga’s alien ships.

The Galagadon pales in size in comparison to its more pop-culturally significant cousin, the Megaladon—it’s estimated to have been approximately 12 to 18 inches long. It acted primarily as a bottom-feeder among the Cretaceous rivers that once covered parts of South Dakota, similar to modern-day carpet sharks such as the wobbegong. Far from being an apex predator, the Galagadon likely fed primarily on small fish and crustaceans. As a true testament to the power of science, all of this information was deduced just from the this shark’s spaceship-like teeth, which, due to their tiny size, could have very easily been missed.

“It amazes me that we can find microscopic shark teeth sitting right beside the bones of the largest predators of all time,” Terry Gates, lecturer at North Carolina State University and lead author of a paper describing the new species, explained in a statement, “These teeth are the size of a sand grain. Without a microscope you’d just throw them away.”

The teeth, which measure less than a millimeter across, were discovered in the process of sifting through nearly two tons of dirt among the sediment left behind from the discovery of Sue. While the fossils themselves might be physically small, their discovery will have a leave big impact and serves as an important addition to the fossil record. “Every species in an ecosystem plays a supporting role, keeping the whole network together,” Gates said. “There is no way for us to understand what changed in the ecosystem during the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous without knowing all the wonderful species that existed before.”

“This shark lived at the same time as ‘Sue’ the T. rex, it was part of the same world,” said Pete Makovicky, another one of the authors of the study. “Most of its body wasn’t preserved, because sharks’ skeletons are made of cartilage, but we were able to find its tiny fossilized teeth.”

In the statement, Makovicky—who told Twin Cities Geek he recently accepted a position here at the University of Minnesota in the earth sciences department—added, “Galagadon was less than two feet long—it’s not exactly Jaws. It’s comparable to bamboo sharks living today. It probably had a flat face and was very likely camouflage-colored, since its relatives today have a camouflage pattern. It would have eaten small invertebrates and probably spent a fair amount of time lying on the bottom of the riverbed.”

The full published paper on the Galagadon discovery appears in the Journal of Paleontology.

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