Shark Tooth Weapons Lead To Discovery Of Extinct Marine Species
April 4, 2013

Shark Tooth Weapons Lead To Discovery Of Extinct Marine Species

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Sharks played a key role in the lives of ancient Pacific islanders. Not only were these animals hunted as food, but their teeth were also used to create deadly weapons.

Based on an analysis of ancient weapons found on the Gilbert Islands, modern day biologists said they have discovered two locally extinct species of shark that once inhabited the central Pacific.

According to Joshua Drew, a biologist at New York's Columbia University and co-author of a report on the findings that appeared in PLoS ONE, the research team never intended to discover anything.

"Initially, we just wanted to catalog what shark species were there. We didn't suspect that two of them would be gone," he told National Geographic's Ker Than.

Along with biologists from the Field Museum of Natural History (FMNH) in Chicago, Drew examined 120 weapons from indigenous peoples that once inhabited the Gilbert Islands, which are now part of the nation of Kiribati. They identified at least 17 shark species that were represented in the weapons.

The biologists were surprised to find that two of the sharks, the spotfin shark and the dusky shark, no longer inhabit the reefs near the islands.

"Had we never done this work, nobody would have ever known that these things ever existed there. It had been erased from our collective memories that these sharks once plied these waters," said Drew.

According to archeological records, sharks were highly important to the islanders. Evidence points to a complex series of rituals surrounding shark fishing.

Archeologists have also found that many of the weapons made from sharks´ teeth were used to settle tribal disputes. According to missionary records, two ℠champions´ would settle a territorial or other dispute in a highly ritualized battle.

The combatants "were dressed in this really cool armor made of very tightly woven coconut cords, and they had tiger shark 'brass knuckles' and helmets made out of dried pufferfish with spikes on them," Drew said.

While the sharks played a central role throughout the islands´ past, many consider the modern day sharks near the Gilbert Islands also play an important cultural and ecological role.

The study researchers said they hope their findings can lead to increased awareness and a more informed conservation strategy.

"When we looked we found this shadow biodiversity, hints and whispers of what these reefs used to be like. It's our hope that by understanding how reefs used to look we'll be able to come up with conservation strategies to return them to their former vivid splendor," says Drew.

Drew said his team is also seeking funding to create a written and oral archive of modern Gilbert Islanders about the current ecosystem surrounding the islands before the forces of human activity and climate change affect them.

"The Gilbert Islands are threatened by climate change, and we're not sure if they'll still be habitable in a hundred years," Drew said. "If the islanders are moving to Australia or other areas ... they're going to be severed from their generations-long contact with the reef and its organisms."