Kids are fascinated by sharks. Although they aren’t likely to come face-to-face with one of their favorite animals in the wild, they can touch these animals—without even getting wet. Your family can find shark teeth, both fossilized and modern, on beaches, riversides, and even certain landlocked spots. Here’s how to help find their own toothy treasures.
Why are shark teeth so common?
Sharks have been losing their teeth for over 400 million years—long before dinosaurs walked Earth’s surface. Although a shark skeleton rarely fossilizes—the soft cartilage that gives their bodies structure breaks down too fast—tooth fossils are common. Like human teeth, shark chompers are made of superhard calcium phosphate, a material that lasts long enough to allow minerals to replace all the organic material of the tooth, creating a fossil.
And sharks have a lot of teeth to lose. Depending on the species, the fish can have hundreds or even thousands of teeth at a time that they’re constantly losing, breaking, or dulling as they grab and eat prey. Estimates vary, but depending on species, age, diet, and other factors, a shark could lose 20,000 to 50,000 teeth over a lifetime, according to marine biologist Jillian Morris.
Luckily, new teeth grow in conveyor-belt style. “More teeth are always developing in their jaw and moving forward to replace the lost ones,” Morris says. “It’s a brilliant design.”
No wonder fossilized shark teeth likely outnumber preserved mammal teeth a hundred to one, according to Robert Boessenecker, geology lecturer at the College of Charleston. Adds Kenshu Shimada, a professor of paleobiology at DePaul University, “Shark teeth are arguably the most commonly found vertebrate fossils in the world.”
That means plenty of fossilized teeth for your family to find. Here’s how to get started.
Finding the right spot
Any shore is a potential discovery spot for a modern-day shark tooth. But fossilized teeth are often found in specific spots.
These are places that were once underwater: The lost shark teeth dropped to the ancient seafloor and were quickly covered with sediment. Over a long period of time, the teeth fossilized and the sediment hardened into sedimentary rock. Millions of years later, the coastlines changed, and rocks that were once deep underwater are now close to the surface or dry.
Erosion reveals those buried fossilized teeth, often from wave action against rocks just under the surface that push the fossils up onto the beach. Rushing water can also unearth fossils from riverbanks that used to be under the ocean. Exposed cliffs are another spot where erosion can unjam teeth.
Beaches on the East Coast of the United States, especially along the coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida (Venice, Florida, even calls itself the “Shark Tooth Capital of the World”) are well-known hot spots for tooth hunting. These areas were underwater millions of years ago; because the sediment developed very slowly, more teeth can be found in smaller amounts of rock. Shimada says with a good spot, patience, and luck, collectors can find multiple fossilized teeth in a single outing.
West Coast beaches usually don’t reveal as many fossils because sediment built up much more quickly, so a greater volume of rock is in between each fossilized tooth. They can still be found, though, as well as modern-day shark teeth. So have kids keep their eyes peeled.
Do a little internet sleuthing to find out if an inland area was once submerged in the sea. For instance, Calvert Cliffs State Park in Maryland and Sharktooth Hill in California were both covered by oceans millions of years ago and are now popular tooth-hunting locations.
Most public beaches and rivers, especially ones known for fossil hunting, allow people to take shark teeth home. (If you’re on private land, you’ll need to get permission from the landowner to hunt for teeth.) But be sure to check the local rules before you go.
On the hunt
You don’t need any special tools to find shark teeth—just fingers and sharp eyes. Here’s how to help kids make the most of their hunt.
Bring a bag. Bring a small bucket or pouch so your kids can hang onto their treasure. Some people loop it around their neck or waist for easy access.
Set out early. Your family’s chances of finding teeth are best if you go before other people have picked through the area.
Time the tides. At the beach, search at low tide when more beach is visible or right after a storm passes to see if the wave action has revealed new finds.
Search slowly. Kids might be tempted to run around looking for teeth, but encourage them to stand still and examine a small area carefully, even getting on their hands and knees. Have them stare closely at an area of sand with shells and other ocean debris. Look for shiny, dark triangles about the size of a fingertip.
Consider the colors. Fossilized shark teeth are most often dark black or brown but can also be shades of red, gray, or green, depending on the minerals in the sediment where the tooth fossilized. A rare light or white tooth usually means the tooth is modern, not fossilized.
Dig a little deeper. If kids aren’t finding any teeth on the surface, have them dig with their hands or a small shovel just under the wet sand where the waves have washed up shells and other ocean bits.
Get crafty. Some tooth hunters, including pros like Shimada, use a small sieve to quickly drain sand and more easily spot fossils. If your family is feeling crafty, learn how to make a homemade shark tooth sifter here.
Track the tooth. Identifying which shark a tooth came from can be tricky, but guides like this one from Sharks4Kids can help. Hint: Shark teeth are shaped to match the shark’s prey. Long and pointy sand tiger shark teeth spear slippery fish; curved, serrated tiger shark teeth can rip open sea turtle shells; strong, sharp great white shark teeth can crunch seal bones.