Texas Memorial Museum hosts shark exhibit

Rebecca Stanley

A whorl-toothed shark occupied the seas 270 million years ago. Now, the shark is the main feature of the Texas Memorial Museum’s current exhibit: “The Buzz Saw Sharks of Long Ago.”

The traveling exhibit, here from the Idaho Museum of Natural History, artfully puts the Helicoprion shark on display. Its fossils fascinate both paleontologists and exhibit visitors. The exhibit features works by artists Ray Troll and Gary Staab, including paintings and sculptures of the shark, along with the fossils.

The main draw is the abnormal appearance of the shark’s teeth. When the Helicoprion grew new teeth, it simply pushed the other teeth forward, resulting in the spiral “buzz saw” shape observed in the fossils. 

Ben Grall, museum visitor services manager, said the unique design of the shark fits the Austin aesthetic.

“Austin is famous for its live music, booming tech industry and ‘Keeping it Weird,’” Grall said in an email. “(Austin is) a destination where Buzz Saw Sharks are right at home.” 

Jennifer Sims, an education intern working at the museum, said many visitors will be surprised to learn the Helicoprion was around before dinosaurs.

“This shark has been extinct for over 260 million years,” Sims said. “It was actually around before dinosaurs, back when our seven continents were just one — Pangaea. Most of these fossils were actually found in Idaho.”

There are points of interest in the exhibit for all age groups, specifically Troll’s artwork, which includes hidden artificial cheeseburgers for children to find within in it, Sims said.

“I’ve seen everyone from pre-K and under, up to high school kids, or the elderly or actual scientists,” Sims said. 

Pamela Owen, associate director of the museum, said this exhibit is different from others because it brings together science and art. 

“What sets this exhibition apart from others is that it demonstrates how teaming the creative minds of scientists and artists can lead to exciting discoveries,” Owen said in an email. “The exhibit is a unique combination of science, art and humor. In ‘Buzz Saw,’ the art is displayed as you would typically see in an art gallery … Presenting the images of the shark in this way provides an opportunity to appreciate the ‘scientific surrealism’ of Ray Troll’s art, and to interject some humor into the story of Helicoprion.”