Discover The Ancient Shark Fish With A Buzz Saw Jaw

Prehistoric Sharks - Helicoprion
© Grisha Bruev/

Written by Austin S.

Published: June 25, 2022

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If you’ve seen the movie Jaws, you know about terrifying sharks. For sharks like the great white, their teeth are a lethal weapon to kill prey. Very few animals terrify humans, like sharks. These quick-swimming, sharp-toothed predators are a source of terror to a lot of people. With the imagery of a deadly shark’s teeth, can you ever imagine one with a buzz-saw arrangement of teeth?

Well before the dinosaurs existed, there lived a terrifying prehistoric fish. The helicoprion was a prehistoric fish that lived around 270 million years ago. This terrifying creature was also the only creature with a 360-degree spiral of teeth. Also, the helicoprion was a puzzle to scientists for many years. But recent research has given more insight into the creature. This article will discuss all you need to know about the Helicoprion. 

Helicoprion: Description

The Helicoprion is an extinct shark-like fish of the Eugeneodont order. Eugeneodont fishes are a group of extinct cartilaginous fishes. The Helicoprion had a cartilaginous skeleton. This is a body characteristic of many extinct cartilaginous fishes. Also, cartilaginous skeletons don’t fossilize easily. Thus, it isn’t easy to understand what the Helicoprion looked like.  

In 2011, a team of scientists described a new helicoprion fossil. This fossil was found in the Phosphoria Formation in Idaho. Many people have known about this specimen for many years. But new research reveals something new. Helicoprion had a whorl of teeth embedded in its lower jaw. Some of the whorl specimens revealed the teeth reached incredible sizes. 

Furthermore, the fossil specimen found in 2011 belonged to an unnamed helicoprion species. The tooth whorl of this specimen was 18 inches in diameter. When researchers compared the specimen with other Eugeneodonts, they revealed it might have grown more than 33ft in length.

Additionally, some other specimen found in the 1980s was also studied by Tapanila and his team. The results of this new study were shocking. The study revealed a tooth whorl of about 60cm in diameter. Comparing this with other creatures, the creature owning this whorl would have reached a length of 40ft. This indicates that this species of Helicoprion was among the biggest fishes at that time. The study also revealed that the Helicoprion was probably the biggest aquatic animal of its time. 

Helicoprion bessonovi – edestid “shark” from Early Permian (Artinskian) of the Ural region. The Helicoprion had a whorl of teeth embedded in its lower jaw.

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Tooth Whorl

Until 2013, the only known fossil sample of the helicoprion on record was its spiral teeth. Skeletons of chondrichthyan fish like the Helicoprion are made of cartilage. Thus, the entire body will deteriorate once it starts to decay. The spiral teeth were not thought to be in the lower jaw until the discovery of the skull of a close relative, the Ornithoprion. 

Furthermore, the tooth whorl depicted all the teeth developed by the creature in the lower jaw. As the creature grew, the smaller, older teeth moved to the center of the whorl by the appearance of newer, more prominent teeth. Predatory sharks of today can regrow teeth. Without this ability, they would have been smaller and died at a younger age. 

Additionally, the ability to regrow loose teeth can be dated back to helicoprion. This ability makes it one of the most dangerous aquatic predators. Also, modern sharks shed old teeth to make space for new ones. Unlike modern sharks, helicoprion’s newer teeth grew from the back of its jaw, pushing its jawbone outward. 

Helicoprion: Timeline and Habitat

Something that makes the Helicoprion a unique creature is the timeline it lived. The Helicoprion was alive during the early Permian period, around 290 million years ago. It existed until the early Triassic period, about 250 million years ago. The early Triassic period was when other prehistoric sharks started to gain a tentative hold on the aquatic food chain. 

Surprisingly, early Triassic fossil samples of the Helicoprion showed something unique. The samples showed that this ancient shark survived the devastating Permian-Triassic Extinction Event. This extinction event killed about 95% of the aquatic animals in that period.  

Furthermore, several Helicoprion has been discovered across Europe, Australia, America, and Asia. This distribution indicates that it lived in a wide range of habitats during the Permian era. 

Helicoprion: Fossil Discovery

Several fossils of the Helicoprion have been discovered over the years. The first Helicoprion fossil was first discovered and described in 1899. Russian geologist Alexander P. Karpinsky discovered the fossil in Russia. Karpinsky only discovered the teeth of the Helicoprion since the cartilage doesn’t fossilize. Also, Karpinsky assigned this fossil to a  type species called Helicoprion bessonowi.  

Furthermore, another type of species was described in 1955. Helicoprion ferreiri was initially described as part of the genus Lissoprion in 1907. This description came from fossils found in the Phosphoria Formation in Idaho. The Helicoprion specimen described in 1955 was found in Wolf Campaign-age quartzes on China Mountain, about six miles Southeast of Contact, Nevada. 

Additionally, Helicoprion jingmenense was described from a tooth whorl that was almost complete. The tooth whorl was found in the lower Permian Qixia Formation of the Hubei Province, China. Helicoprion jingmenense was similar to H.bessonowi and H.ferreiri. But the teeth of the H.jingmenense had a wider cutting blade and a shorter compound root than that of the H.ferreiri. it also differed from the former by having lesser than 39 teeth per evolution. 

Furthermore, this bizarre creature caused a stir in the paleontology industry for quite a while. Many paleontologists didn’t know what to make of the Helicoprion’s spiral teeth. 

Fossil Reconstruction

The lack of fossil evidence has led to many attempted fossil reconstructions to understand the Helicoprion. In some reconstructions, the tooth whorl was on the upper jaw. In others, the whorl was on the lower jaw. Scientists have also debated with fossil reconstruction whether Helicoprion was like the modern shark or a cartilaginous fish, the ancient chimera

Recently, a fossil tooth whorl was scanned using computed tomography(CT) by Leif Tapania and his colleagues. This technology provided a more detailed look into the tooth whorl. The CT scan revealed that the only way the whorl would have fit into the helicoprion’s mouth would be to take up its entire lower jaw. The whorl would have grown continuously in a spiral. 

Furthermore, Tapania and his colleagues wrote that previous fossil reconstructions sketched the spiral as an appendage at the tip of the jaw. Also, the scanned fossil sample was found in Idaho in 1950. The sample dated back to 270million years ago and was 23cm in diameter. This is half the size of the largest tooth whorl ever found.  

Helicoprion sp. – fossil shark tooth whorl from the Permian of Idaho, USA. (IMNH, Idaho Museum of Natural History, Idaho State University)

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Helicoprion: Diet

The key to understanding the ecology of the Helicoprion is its unique teeth. The lack of wear on the teeth of the Helicoprion and the unusual saw-like tooth whorl suggests it fed on soft-bodied prey. Also, suction feeding would have been ineffective due to its narrow jaw. 

Besides, scientists believe the Helicoprion was a bite feeder. Paleontologist Ramsey used biomechanical modeling to understand the functions of the Helicoprion teeth. The modeling implied that the teeth inside the whorl had specific functions depending on their location. The outer teeth gripped and dragged prey into helicoprion’s mouth. The middle teeth tore the prey, and the inner teeth pushed the prey into its throat. 

Furthermore, this unique feeding method would have allowed the Helicoprion to feed on hard and soft-bodied prey. 

Why Did The Helicoprion Go Extinct

Adequate information about the extinction of the Helicoprion is not known. Fossil specimen only dates back to 250million years ago during the early Triassic era. You can assume that after they survived the Permian-Triassic Extinction, they also began slowly dying out. More research will be needed to support this theory. 

Helicoprion Threat and Predator

From fossil evidence, the sheer size of the Helicoprion made sure it did not have any natural predators. The Helicoprion was the apex aquatic predator of its time. Also, the bizarre nature of its teeth would have ensured that no other animal could compete with it. 

Helicoprion Relationship With Chimeras and Edestus

There is massive speculation on whether the helicoprion is a shark or not. Some scientists believe that the animal is related to chimeras. Chimeras are cartilaginous fishes that separated in lineage from sharks about 400 million years ago. 

Furthermore, other scientists believe it is closely related to the Edestus. This theory is backed up by fossil reconstruction. Further studies of the Helicoprion fossil through fossil reconstruction revealed that the teeth of the helicoprion resembled that of the Edestus. Edestus is a crazy prehistoric shark that lived in the Paleozoic era. 


Whether it was a shark or not, this prehistoric fish ruled its territory during the Permian era. Modern predatory sharks terrify people. Can you imagine a creature like this in oceans today? Nobody would want to go to the beach if the Helicoprion lurked in the waters. 

With its spiral set of teeth, how did the animal manage not to cut its face off? Well, researchers are still trying to work that out. 

Up next: Earth’s history is filled with stories of several prehistoric animals that ruled the earth way before humans came to exist. If you’re fascinated with prehistoric animals, here are some articles you can explore on this site:

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About the Author

Growing up in rural New England on a small scale farm gave me a lifelong passion for animals. I love learning about new wild animal species, habitats, animal evolutions, dogs, cats, and more. I've always been surrounded by pets and believe the best dog and best cat products are important to keeping our animals happy and healthy. It's my mission to help you learn more about wild animals, and how to care for your pets better with carefully reviewed products.

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