Texas Memorial Museum Welcomes the Buzz Saw Shark Back to Campus

Walking through the Hall of Biodiversity at the top of UT’s Texas Memorial Museum, it’s difficult to parse if you’re wading through a natural science exhibit or a modern art show. For the next year, technically, the answer is both.

Until Sept. 21 of next year, UT’s oldest museum is displaying The Buzz Saw Sharks of Long Ago, an exhibit based on research on a Helicoprion shark fossil found in Idaho and artwork from the Helicoprion-obsessed painter Ray Troll that sits precisely at the intersection of art and science. On loan from the Idaho Museum of Natural History after a stop at Cornell, the exhibit features Troll’s paintings, a life-sized shark sculpture by Gary Staab that appears as if it is busting through the drywall, fossils, a video installation, and more.

Strangely enough, the Idahoan Helicoprion has been on the Forty Acres once before.

In 2013, a team of scientists transported a partial jaw fossil from the cartilaginous fish to the UT High-Resolution X-Ray CT Facility for a scan.

“It was in the collections and somebody was taking a second look,” TMM Associate Director Pamela Owen says. “It really demonstrates the value of scientific collections. Somebody might look at something with a different eye, or with the advent of new technology.”

Since 1899, when Russian geologist Alexander Karpinsky named the Helicoprion—meaning “spiral saw”—scientists were puzzled on the location of the whorl-shaped teeth on the shark’s body. Karpinsky and others made guesses—that it curled upward along the snout, formed off the tail, or that it ran along the shark’s back—but couldn’t be sure of the placement of its odd spiral of razor-sharp teeth. After the scan at UT, the answer was definitive. As the whorl grew and new teeth were formed, the spiral moved inward into the shark’s mouth, and when the animal bit into prey, the teeth sliced backward. Hence, the buzz saw shark.

“Those data from the scans were critical,” Owen says. “They realized they had enough information to say, it’s in the lower jaw, it was used to cut up soft-bodied prey.”

Having an accomplished artist like Troll interested in the sharks—he became infatuated with the animal in 1993, after coming across some fossils in the Los Angeles County Museum basement—makes the exhibit visually transformative. Instead of only getting a few glimpses at a whorl, without much context, Troll’s colorful and playful paintings bring the exhibit to life. The walls on the fourth floor of the TMM are painted ocean blue in Troll’s style. The TMM staff of three projected Troll’s actual stencils onto the wall and painted it on themselves, being sure to add three cheeseburgers into the mural—Troll’s trademark. A pair of cheeseburger sculptures, hidden in the exhibit, were also sent along with Troll’s artwork.

“I guess he’s a big cheeseburger fan,” TMM Visitor Services Manager Ben Grall says. “Once one kid spots one, you drop a little hint that there’s others. It’s Ray’s idea of combining art, science, and a little bit of humor to keep everyone interested.”

On October 11, National Fossil Day, the TMM was bustling with students of all ages, from elementary school kids to UT undergrads. One family arrived at 10 a.m. and immediately went up to the fourth floor of the museum to see the buzz saw shark, the youngest boy running through the exhibit, reading everything as fast as he could before planting himself on the Troll-embroidered couch set in front of the video installation. A few minutes later, a little girl and her mother ambled in.

“Wow!” the young girl shrieked when she saw a fossil, before whipping out her phone to take a picture. She made her way across Troll’s depiction of Karpinsky and his versions of the Helicoprion‘s whorl before stopping in her tracks. She tried taking selfies in front of the enormous shark sculpture, but they weren’t coming out right. A museum volunteer asked her if she’d like for him to get a picture of her in front of the shark.

“Uh … yes please!” she squealed. It appeared that the Helicoprion had made another fan.


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