Discovering Extinct Ecosystems in the Classroom

About this lesson

Sharks are an extremely interesting group of animals to study and the abundance of their teeth in the fossil record make them excellent for studies of ancient ecology. We can also use their teeth as a tool for studying many other aspects of ancient life or even surprising subjects like math, social studies, and english language arts. This lesson is designed to provide all users, students and teachers, with the flexibility to collect data for my citizen science project, then use the data in whatever way they see fit. A complete set of data is available at the bottom of the lesson plan.

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Students will be able to:

  1. Discover ancient shark teeth and measure their sizes
  2. Learn anatomy of vertebrate dentition
  3. Plot data in the form of frequency plots/histograms and X-Y plots
  4. Reconstruct the ancient ecosystem of sharks in North Carolina and Maryland based upon the body size findings from their research and predatory functional groups of the teeth


The modern landscape across the east coast of the United States is a bit unusual, because for most of past the 75 million years the Atlantic Ocean covered large swaths of what our coastal plains. That means cities like Washington, DC, Charleston, and Savannah we all underwater, whereas Richmond, Raleigh, and Columbia were practically beachfront property.

And just like today, sharks swam through the waters, leaving behind millions of teeth to help us puzzle back together the ancient ecosystems that have long since gone extinct. Shark Tooth Forensics is a collaboration between the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and North Carolina State University, led by paleontologist Dr. Terry “Bucky” Gates, in which citizen scientists discover shark teeth and take data critical to understanding the variety of sharks living in the past and the sizes of the extinct creatures through time.

Click to find information on the sediment you are about to investigate:

Supplies needed

  • Small paper plates (cheap flexible plates are best)
  • Small paper cups (two cups per working group, one labeled New the other labeled Done)
  • Paper measuring ruler (included in lesson resources)
  • Tweezers (optional)
  • Small ziplock bags (bead bags best, but snack also doable)
  • Sharpie marker for writing on bags and cups
  • Computer for data submission via Google Form (optional)
  • Paper and writing tool for data recording
  • Fossil sediment
  • Identification guide (optional; PDF pictoral guides available and Kent, 1994 available)

Software needed

  • Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets (optional for data collection; optional for Body Size module)
  • PAST (Palaeontological Statistics; What are those teeth for? module)


All Data will be collected here

Data Modules

Many activities are possible with the data your students collect. Click links below to see lesson plans for modules that use your class data.

About the Scientist

Bucky’s research is at the intersection of paleobiology and modern ecology. He uses field and evolutionary comparative methods to better understand the evolution and preservation of ancient ecosystems.
Follow the Gates Lab

About the SciArt

Students Discover SciArt is created by Buzz Hoot Roar, the amazing team that brings science to life in their graphics-driven science blog.

Core Concepts

View the Vision and Change | Core Concept and Competencies Table