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Shark teeth fossils are hard to find in South Florida — but not impossible

 A woman wearing shorts, a tank top and a hat is squatting on a beach, bent over. She's looking through the sand.
Anita Li
Deerfield Beach resident Kristin Mellon has always loved walking along the beach. She found her first shark tooth a year ago at Boynton Beach.

Florida's Venice Beach is known as the “Shark Tooth Capital of the World,” but residents in Broward and Palm Beach counties are scouring the shore line and finding a fair share of shark teeth.

Deerfield Beach resident Kristin Mellon has found over a dozen shark teeth in the last four months. She walks along Deerfield Beach a few times a week, where she’s found coral, sea glass, even a baby turtle.

“You come in the morning and the water is real flat. And you see the beach dotted with all the shells,” Mellon said. “It's like Christmas morning all the time because you have new little treasures.”

South Florida isn’t ideal for shark teeth hunting for two reasons: there’s not a lot of teeth, and many of the shark teeth aren’t fossils.

Shark teeth fossils are typically thousands to millions of years old. They’re darker in color because the organic material has been replaced with minerals. However, modern shark teeth are white or light brown.

READ MORE: Florida reefs got a reprieve from steamy water this summer, but will it last?

Mellon says the ultimate goal for shark teeth collectors is to find a Megalodon shark tooth fossil. The shark existed over 3 million years ago and could grow to up to 58 feet long. The animals were so big their teeth fossils can be up to 7 inches long.

However, Mellon said that searching for shark teeth in South Florida has been anything but discouraging.

“It makes it more special when you do find [shark teeth] because they're not just all over the place. It's like a treasure hunt,” she said. “You can't get more real than if it was in a shark's mouth this morning.”

Shark teeth are fairly prevalent in South Florida because up to a few million years ago, the entire area was submerged in shallow water, which is the ideal habitat for sharks. This means that shark teeth can also be found far away from beaches as well, buried under the soil.

“We replace our teeth once. If we need to replace our teeth a second time, we have to pay really expensive dental bills. A shark can go through, depending on the species, 25 to 45 thousand teeth in their lifetime,” said Ken Marks, a volunteer at the Florida Museum of Natural History and an amateur fossil hunter.

17 white and light brown shark teeth.
Anita Li
Kristin Mellon's shark teeth collection.

Marks said the best time to go looking for shark teeth is after a big storm or high tide, when the ocean’s current is able to bring shark teeth that’s deep in the ocean onto the shore.

Another unexpected culprit of a propensity of teeth is beach renourishing. When shorelines erode, cities often dump tons of sand onto the beach to restore it.

Mellon found her first shark tooth a year ago, when she was still living near Boynton Beach.

“I was literally screaming, it was a beautiful great white tooth,” she said.

Mellon was working remote at the time, so it was easy to go for walks along the beach in the morning — and look for what she calls “gifts from Mother Nature”. When she finds some debris from the ocean that looks promising, she squats down and looks through it.

“Usually I find a stick or something, it helps me to kind of poke, you know, get seaweed off. Or I find a flat, bigger shell,” Mellon said.

Knowing where to look

Fossil enthusiasts agree that while shark teeth in South Florida might not be a dime a dozen, you can still find them — especially if you know where to look.

“Look for where that gravel is accumulating and start searching there. Water doesn't know the difference between that rock and a shark tooth, it just accumulates things of similar size together,” said Victor Perez, an Environmental Studies professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “If you really want to give yourself a better chance, bring a small sifter.”

Perez wrote his PhD thesis on shark fossils in Florida and has given many lectures about shark teeth. He said there are around 70 known species of sharks and rays in Florida’s fossil record, and over 100 known species living today.

Mellon said even though she has a small collection of teeth, every time she finds a new one, her reaction is the same.

“Every time I find a shark tooth, I'm like a little kid,” she said. “I look around to see if anybody's watching, [so] I can run up and go show it to them.”

Sign up for WLRN’s environment newsletter Field Notes to receive our insider’s guide for living in South Florida’s changing landscape. Get original reporting and recaps, with context, delivered to your inbox every Friday. Subscribe here.

Anita Li is a Spring and Summer 2024 intern for WLRN. She is about to enter her last year at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, where she studies journalism.
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