A giant shark tooth that's more than two million years old has been snatched from a park in Australia, leaving authorities puzzled.
The tooth is from a megalodon, an ancient shark species that went extinct 23 to 2.6 million years ago. It's one of two known examples in Cape Range National Park along Western Australia's Ningaloo Coast. The place is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and Australia's Department of Environment and Conservation was just beginning to figure out how to secure the tooth when it was stolen. Up until that point, authorities had been considering covering it with bulletproof glass and other sorts of cages. (Related: "Museum-Goers Beware: That Ancient Artifact May Be Stolen")
"The worst part is they took the better specimen, which was not so well known," Arvid Hogstrom, a department spokesperson, tells BBC News. "Our staff had actually physically covered it up with natural features to make sure it was hidden."
The four-inch-long tooth had been stashed at a semi-secret location that only a few people knew about. It was so remote that staffers didn't check on the tooth every day, and they didn't get reports it had gone missing until March 9. (Read: "How Tomb Raiders Are Stealing Our History")
The tooth, which was attached to a rock and hidden from tourists, had likely been hacked off with a hammer or chisel. (Read about illegal excavations in cash-strapped Greece.)
Hogstrom says the tooth's monetary value "would not be very high," though it may be prized by collectors. He suspects someone with knowledge of the tooth may have unwittingly told another person, getting the information into the wrong hands. Hogstrom tells the AFP an amateur collector probably took it, or it may have been "someone that just wants to have a fossil sitting on their mantelpiece."
Roaming the Earth's warm waters millions of years ago, megalodons would have looked similar to great white sharks. But they were much larger, growing to be about 50 feet long, or about the size of a large 18-wheel trailer. They weighed more than 20 tons, which is more than half-a-dozen hippos.
"A great white is about the size of the clasper, or penis, of a male megalodon," University of Califorina Davis shark expert Peter Klimley told National Geographic in 2008. The shark has no modern size equivalents today.
The species name literally means "big tooth," and megalodons likely had the strongest bite ever, able to crush an automobile. That's more powerful than that of Tyrannosaurus rex. Scientists think ancient megalodons hunted whales, or at least their ancestors. (Read: "We Still Don't Know What Killed the Biggest Shark of All Time")
The megalodon's skeleton was made mostly out of cartilage, which rarely gets preserved in the fossil record. The bone-like material of their teeth are their only remnants yet found.