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Sharks Are Older Than Trees, the North Star & Much More
It's really a shark planet when you think about it.
When Steven Spielberg’s Jaws hit theaters in 1975 it changed the way we think about sharks. Before Jaws most people hardly ever thought of sharks and certainly didn’t consider them monsters of the deep. The only real silver lining is the uptick in scientific interest in sharks which also emerged in the aftermath of Jaws.
While our fascination with and fear of sharks is relatively new, sharks themselves are ancient. They’ve been around so long that sharks are older than a whole bunch of things we think of as having always been there. The exact date of the emergence of sharks is a matter of ongoing research but it’s generally accepted that they showed up in the world’s oceans between 450 and 400 million years ago.
Having only been around for about 300,000 years, humanity is a relative newcomer while sharks are grizzled veterans of our planet. Even the age of dinosaurs, spanning about 165 million years in total, could fit inside the dominion of sharks nearly three times over. Sharks are not only one of the most successful and enduring animal groups in the world, they’re also older than…
The Rings of Saturn
When we look out at the expanse of space, we tend to think that we’re glimpsing the eternal. Distant worlds and even more distant stars are so long-lasting that it bends the mind to imagine that they were ever not there or even that they have significantly changed.
Certainly, Saturn has been around much longer than sharks, having formed about 4.5 billion years ago along with the rest of the solar system, but the rings are a relatively new addition. It has long been believed that Saturn’s rings formed about 400 million years ago, right around the same time sharks were showing up, but new evidence has changed that.
Data recovered by the Cassini probe in 2017 revealed that the rings are actually much younger than we previously thought. Cassini plunged into the rings to measure their mass which scientists were able to use to constrain their age. Based on the most recent data, Saturn’s rings formed between 10 and 100 million years ago.
“Older than the trees” is a saying for a reason. Even individual trees seemingly live forever, with some trees having racked up thousands of years. Trees as a type of organism, however, are a relatively new addition to the Earth.
Plants first showed up on land about 470 million years ago, with a bit of a head start on sharks, but trees didn’t show up until about 390 million years ago. Before then, plants were busy evolving the leaf and root systems they would need to really take hold. The first trees were small, as you might expect, and they stayed that way for tens of millions of years.
At the time, CO2 levels and the Earth’s average temperature were high. It was too hot for large leaves to really blow up but, as other plants gobbled up the CO2 the levels dropped to the point that trees and forests could really… take root… about 360 million years ago.
Polaris (the North Star)
Surely the stars in the sky are older than sharks, right? Some of them, yes, but not all. In fact, any sharky ocean explorers roaming the ancient Earth wouldn’t have had the North Star to guide them. Polaris, commonly called the North Star, is one of the easiest to find in the night sky. It’s only about a degree from the celestial north pole meaning that, as the Earth turns, all the other stars wheel around Polaris.
In actuality, Polaris is a system of three stars orbiting around one another. At a distance of 430 light-years from Earth, those three stars appear as a single point of light in the sky. Most of the sharks who have ever existed, couldn’t have seen the North star because it didn’t yet exist. All three of the stars in the Polaris group have an estimated age of just 70 million years, showing up only in the last 15 percent of the age of sharks.
The Atlantic Ocean
This list could go on forever. Sharks are older than flowers which evolved between 256 and 149 million years ago, they are older than the Rocky Mountains which formed about 75 million years ago, and they are older than an orbit around the galactic center, which takes about 225 million years. Not only that, but sharks are even older than the waters in which they swim.
About 200 million years ago the world’s land masses were grouped together into a supercontinent called Pangaea. Then, about 150 million years ago, a rift in the continental plates broke the continent apart, creating a new waterway where none previously existed. As the plates continued to shift and the distance between them increased, the Atlantic ocean emerged. By that time, sharks had already been around for two-thirds of their existence.
Their long tenure in the world’s oceans makes it all the more tragic that so many sharks species are threatened today. Maybe Spielberg was right about the monstrous nature of shark-human interactions, he was just wrong about who was the villain.
Appreciate the evolutionary icon and true star of Jaws, available from Universal Pictures.