Prehistoric shark named after retired Georgia College professor

Prehistoric shark named after retired Georgia College professor

D r. Dennis Parmley’s close encounter with a shark didn’t happen at a crowded beach or the ocean—but in a kaolin mine in Wilkinson County.

He was never in danger. It’d been dead 35 million years.

But the shark—or rather some fossils of its teeth—recently earned Parmley the rare honor of having a prehistoric and previously unknown species named after him. The news has been celebrated on science websites, TV news and even in Newsweek—giving Parmley and Georgia College the kind of acclaim that lasts, well, as long as bones themselves. 

This is an honor. It’s prestige for the college too, and that’s a good thing. It shows students who like this kind of work that it’s still being done. It’s not archaic. Some people think paleontology’s a dying science. It’s not, at all.
– Dr. Dennis Parmley

Dr. Dennis Parmley
Dr. Dennis Parmley

For 17 of his 30 years at Georgia College, the vertebrate paleontologist dug fossils from sediment at Hardie Mine in Gordon. Faculty and hundreds of students joined him there over the years. As did his colleague and friend, David Cicimurri, curator of natural history at South Carolina State Museum and world expert on shark fossils. Together, they found many nautical remnants showing Middle Georgia was once a coastal region. The mine was rich in bones from whales, fish, marine snakes, crocodiles and even a leatherback sea turtle.

But it was a long, smooth shark’s tooth—noted for its pair of smaller teeth on either side—that recently led Cicimurri and two other scientists to believe they’d stumbled across something new. 

The teeth were dug up years ago at the Middle Georgia mine but remained in collections among other shark fossils. Back then, Parmley and Cicimurri thought the teeth represented several different species of shark. But now Cicimurri and his team believe they’re from an ancient ancestor of today’s sand tiger shark, long extinct, and never before identified by modern science. 

Shark teeth from the new species “Mennerotodus parmleyi” in storage at Georgia College.
Shark teeth from the new species “Mennerotodus parmleyi” in storage at Georgia College.

After isolating hundreds of teeth and comparing them to contemporary sharks—the group named the species “Mennerotodus parmleyi” after Parmley to honor his contributions to vertebrate paleontology in Central Georgia. No one knows the Gordon site better or has collected more shark fossils than him, Cicimurri told Parmley. 

At the same time, scientists also announced another new species as the “Mennerotodus mackayi,” a 65 million-year-old shark that went extinct with the dinosaurs. Its fossils were found in Alabama. Both new species were grouped into the prehistoric genus “Mennerotodus,” previously thought to have lived only in Europe and Asia. 

But they now think this family of sharks originated in North America first. 

Most of the South is overgrown with too much vegetation for fossils. But Middle Georgia—where ocean met land in the late Eocene Age—is “definitely unique,” Parmley said. Rapid burial is what creates fossils. During some catastrophic event, sharks and other marine animals at the mine must’ve been quickly covered in rock sediment often found above layers of kaolin. 

It’s an important discovery, because it’s part of our national treasure in this state. It gives us a little window into the past.
– Parmley
“It’s an important discovery,” Parmley said, “because it’s part of our national treasure in this state. It gives us a little window into the past—not only about the kinds of animals and diversity of animals back then—but also the ecology and what habitats there were.”

Parmley retired in 2018, but not from science. He still has a paleontology lab in the basement of Herty Hall and keeps busy categorizing relics of ‘boney fish.’ He also identifies snakes for the public, when they’re found in yards and gardens. 

Parmley came to Georgia College in 1989 as a young professor to teach herpetology (study of snakes), vertebrae zoology and ichthyology (study of fish). A graduate student told Parmley about the Gordon mine. He was surprised at its abundance of fossils and wrote many academic papers with colleagues on discoveries there. He suspects he’s done more research on the site “than anybody else in the world.”

Parmley collected thousands of fossilized teeth from the mine and helped identified more than 20 species of shark. 

One of his greatest accomplishments was finding the vertebra of a colubrid water snake, determined to be the oldest snake fossil of its type in the world. Parmley also helped find the vertebrae and teeth of a few land mammals at the mine that “washed into shore.” Georgia College Professor and Paleomammalogist Dr. Al Mead led the study of those rare fossils.

These and many other fossils are still stored at the university—along with teeth from “Mennerotodus parmleyi.” Fossils from this species linger among thousands of other shark’s teeth, just waiting to be singled out and showcased.

There was a cold snap. Then, it warmed up again. Something happened in the environment that the sharks just couldn’t tolerate. There’s an old saying, ‘You either adjust or you migrate or you die.’ And a lot of them died. They went extinct, and others will again in the future.
– Parmley
Parmley estimates the shark would’ve been 7-to-10 feet long and, like modern sand tiger sharks, fished along the shoreline. It lived at a time when the climate and water temperatures were changing, like today. This makes discoveries like this even more significant.

By recognizing past patterns, he said, we might predict future trends. 

“There was a cold snap. Then, it warmed up again. Something happened in the environment that the sharks just couldn’t tolerate,” he said. “There’s an old saying, ‘You either adjust or you migrate or you die.’ And a lot of them died. They went extinct, and others will again in the future.” 

“It’s a natural thing, but humans seem to be accelerating it. So, if we can find out why,” Parmley said, “it might give us clues on how we might better protect what we have today.”