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Newly discovered prehistoric shark named after arcade classic Galaga

How the internet’s favorite T. rex contributed to the discovery of a new species

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Chicago’s Field Museum, one of the most well-stocked natural history museums on the planet, is home to a number of fascinating specimens. Among them is SUE the Tyrannosaurus rex — an opinionated apex predator, Dungeon Master, and a big fan of Red Dead Redemption 2.

But SUE isn’t the only item in the Field’s collection with ties to video games.

The Field announced Monday that it is also home to a newly discovered species of prehistoric shark. Called Galagadon nordquisteae, the creature was so named because its tiny teeth resemble the spaceships from the arcade classic Galaga. And, as it turns out, the beastie has very close ties to SUE themself.

Following my write-up of SUE’s experience hunting for fossils inside Red Dead Redemption 2, the Field’s social media team invited me down for a housewarming party. As of December, the world’s largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex has been moved to a new location inside the Field and also re-mounted to align with recent discoveries in the field of paleontology. As a member of the local media scene, they wanted me to be on hand for the celebration.

The Field Museum - Galagadon nordquistae
The description of the newly discovered Galagadon nordquistae has been hidden in plain sight for nearly a month.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

Also present for the housewarming was the Field’s William Simpson, the head of geological collections and the collections manager for fossil vertebrates. In his 45-minute presentation on SUE’s new mounting, Simpson let slip that the exhibit included an entirely new species of shark. Everyone on hand was sworn to secrecy, but later that evening, I found it pictured along the back wall.

Of course, SUE’s new exhibit has been open for nearly a full month. That means Galagadon has been hidden in plain sight for three weeks. But the story of how the shark was discovered is even more interesting than the funny shape of its teeth.

After SUE was discovered in South Dakota in 1990, Simpson explained how their remains were trapped within a massive limestone deposit. A team of conservators worked for years to uncover SUE’s remains, logging more than 30,000 hours with miniature jackhammers and tiny sandblasters loaded with baking soda. But the limestone itself, also referred to as “matrix,” didn’t get thrown away.

Left, a rendering of Galagadon nordquistae. Right, the tiny tooth found by a Field Museum volunteer.
A rendering of Galagadon nordquisteae (left). Right, the tiny tooth found by a Field Museum volunteer.
Velizar Simeneonski and Terry Gates/Field Museum

“We kept all that matrix,” Simpson said at the housewarming event, “because there are tiny fossils in the matrix, and I knew that one day I could find a victim some day to go through all of that rock and look for the tiny fossils.”

Eventually Simpson found a willing victim in Field Museum volunteer Karen Nordquist, a retired chemist who has been giving up some of her time to sort through prehistoric dirt for more than 15 years. The find is truly remarkable, given that the specimen is just 1 millimeter across, or roughly the size of the head of a pin.

“It was so tiny, you could miss it if you weren’t looking really carefully,” said Nordquist in a press release. “To the naked eye, it just looks like a little bump; you have to have a microscope to get a good view of it.”

The Field Museum - Galagadon nordquisteae in mural
The mural along the back wall of the new SUE exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum, photographed on Dec. 18, 2018.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

After the tooth was discovered, a team led by North Carolina State University’s Terry Gates did the hard work of placing it in the historical record. The discovery is causing scientists to reconsider what they know about the prehistoric world, and specifically about the place where the internet’s favorite T. rex died.

“We had always thought of the SUE locality as being by a lake formed from a partially dried-up river — the presence of this shark suggests there must have been at least some connection to marine environments,” said Peter Makovicky, the Field Museum’s curator of dinosaurs and one of the authors of the Journal of Paleontology study describing the new species. “This wasn’t some Sharknado event — these animals were making their way up rivers from the sea.”

You can view SUE in their new setting any time you’re in Chicago, and if you squint real hard, perhaps you’ll even catch a glimpse of some Galaga-shaped teeth near the back of the exhibit.

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