Riverhead Middle School teacher Darren Dunn enjoys walks with his wife on the Baiting Hollow beach near their home. They like to collect beach glass, so his eyes are always scanning the rocky shore along the Sound.
One day last month, he spotted what he thought was an arrowhead. But he quickly realized the triangular object was something else. Its translucent sheathing — was it porcelain? — had a serrated edge?
When Dunn returned home with his discovery in his pocket, he started searching online. It didn’t take him long to conclude he’d found a shark’s tooth. And it appeared to be a really old one.
“The top of the tooth looked fossilized,” Dunn said.
He brought the object to school to show it to science teachers there, in the hope they could identify it, he said.
They agreed the tooth could be from a megaladon shark, the largest, fiercest shark that ever lived — which has been extinct for more than 2 million years.
“The thought that I could be holding something that old in my hand really blew my mind,” Dunn said.
But megaladon teeth are generally more than five inches long. Dunn’s specimen was under two inches.
“We thought it could be from one of the shark’s back rows of teeth, or from a young shark whose teeth were not fully grown,” he said.
Dunn was so convinced of his find — the science teachers at the middle school were all in agreement, he said — that he put the tooth in a shadowbox display, and labeled it with the date and place of his find.
But Dunn’s excitement was dampened by the assessment of an expert in vertebrate paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
“It’s almost certainly not megalodon because of its size and other details,” said Carl Mehling, senior museum specialist in the division of the vertebrate paleontology at the museum. He offered his opinion after reviewing images forwarded to the museum by RiverheadLOCAL.
“It looks like Carcharodon carcharias (the Great White Shark) to me,” Mehling said in an email.
“I’d say it is likely a fossil, but it would be very hard to prove since it wasn’t found in its geologic context,” he said.
“But people have long been attracted by these things and it is even possible it made it up there along ancient Native American trade routes,” Mehling said. “This has been known to occur.” He said he knew of “two other such teeth” were recently found on Breezy Point in the Rockaways.
“I know of no young vertebrate fossils turning up anywhere else on Long Island besides Rockaway,” Mehling said.
The museum has an annual “identification day,” when visitors are invited to bring in their own specimens for museum scientists to attempt to identify. The service is free for museum members or with admission to the museum.
Identification day will take place on Saturday, March 23 from noon to 5 p.m. in the museum’s Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall.
Dunn said he’s interested in bringing his find to the museum for a positive identification.
“I’m excited that it was possibly brought up here by ancient Native American traders,” he said.
“I’m going to have to change the description on my shadow box ASAP,” Dunn joked. Searching the shoreline is a fun hobby, he said, and he plans to continue. “You never know what you’re going to find.”