ISU Headlines

Idaho Museum of Natural History, Alaska ‘Fin’ artist team up to form Helicoprion shark posse

Posted February 7, 2012

The Idaho State University Idaho Museum of Natural History is teaming with Alaskan "fin artist" Ray Troll to form a "Helicoprion shark posse" to collect more information about this prehistoric predator that had a "spiral saw" lower jaw that had the appearance of a circular saw blade.

"Come join our shark posse," Troll said. "Please bring forth your whorls of fossilized teeth."

Ray Troll with drawing of Helicoprion.The Museum and artist are asking for help from private collectors who may have individual or collections of fossilized "coils of wickedly sharp, serrated teeth."

"We know there are some great private Helicoprion collections out there," said Leif Tapanila, IMNH curator and ISU associate professor of geosciences. "To complete our studies we'd like to have information from as many samples as possible."

He encourages private fossil owners to send photographs of their samples that include a ruler in the picture so the scientists can determine the size of the fossil. Tapanila stressed that the museum is not interested in collecting the samples from private owners, although the museum certainly wouldn't turn down any gifts or the opportunity to study borrowed fossils.

Idaho State Shark PosseTroll, whose popular artistic works include the paintings "Spawn Till You Die" and "Is Fish Worship Wrong," and the IMNH's Tapanila and undergraduate student Jesse Pruitt share a fascination with Helicoprion sharks that swam the oceans 280 to 220 million years ago.

The IMNH has the largest known North American public collection of Helicoprion jaw fossils, with 27 fossils of complete or near complete jaws, according to Tapanila. The IMNH and Troll are in the initial stages of creating a new Helicoprion shark exhibit, which should be completed in about 18 months.

Troll, a well-regarded scientific illustrator as well as a fine arts artist, has volunteered to complete drawings for the exhibit and visited the IMNH earlier this month. In return, Troll, who has had an "obsession" with spiral-saw sharks for 30 years, is being granted access to the IMNH collection and new research findings.

The IMNH is in the midst of completing new studies on the Helicoprion, including creating a computerized 3-D virtual replica of a Helicoprion jaw and trying to determine how many species of Helicoprion actually existed.

Both parties want more samples.

IMNH curator Leif Tapanila, left, and Ray Troll pose with a large Helicoprion fossil in the Museum's collection. "I want to be able to draw a Helicoprion as accurately as I can, using the best possible scientific information," Troll said. "Science helps us dial in and see how it actually was."

The shark had the circular jaw on the bottom and flat plates on the roof of its mouth that when used together were good for tearing and to "crimp and rip." It was widespread and plenty of its fossils have been found throughout the world, including in Idaho, Nevada, California, Mexico, Arctic Canada, Russia, China, Japan and Australia. Many of the Idaho Museum of Natural History Helicoprion fossils are in good shape and primarily come from phosphate and other mines.

Idaho Museum of Natural History Director Herb Maschner said he was excited about the IMNH’s collaboration with Troll on its Helicoprion work.

"Ray Troll is one of the premier people in the world for translating science into art, especially marine science," Maschner said. "He takes complex topics like the health of oceans or fisheries and translates it into art in such a meaningful way to anyone who sees it. The guy is world renowned and I couldn't be happier that we're planning an exhibit together."

To contact the Idaho Museum Natural History regarding privately held Helicoprion fossils, contact Tapanila at or 208-282-3871.

For more information about the Museum, visit

For more information on Troll and his art, visit