Mystery & Theology in the Ancient Helicoprion

Dinosaurs have long been immensely popular in mass culture. T. Rex is the rock star of the reptiles, in no small part, perhaps, because its name can be so satisfying to pronounce. As noted by paleontologist Robert T. Bakker—himself something of a scientific rock star—the very words "Tyrannosaurus Rex" are "irresistible to the tongue."

Not far behind in fame are Brontosaurus and Stegosaurus; indeed, the former is making a comeback of sorts. Featured in films such as the original Lost World (1925) and beloved classic books such as Danny and the Dinosaur, the Brontosaurus has nevertheless long been dogged by the charge that it is a mere fiction, based on faulty classifications of nineteenth-century scientists. Recently, however, paleontological studies have judged it to be real after all.

A Jaw-Dropping Fish

Less well-known than their land-based cousins, but equally remarkable, are the prehistoric fishes. One of the most bizarre, confounding, even jaw-dropping—the last term is difficult to avoid, as will soon be evident—was the shark-like Helicoprion, which lived between 290 and 250 million years ago and may have reached lengths of 40 feet. Its most distinctive feature was a wheel-like tooth whorl, which was probably set in its lower jaw.

The name "Helicoprion," bestowed on it by a Russian geologist in 1899, means "spiral saw." The teeth may have functioned like such a tool, enabling this predator to slice its prey—probably boneless creatures like squids and true sharks—with an almost industrial efficiency. According to museum curator Leif Tapilla, when it swallowed, the jaws would close and the teeth would rotate backwards.

For most of its history, the Helicoprion appeared to be the ultimate survivor, somehow weathering the mother of mass extinctions, the End Permian, when about 96 percent of all living creatures were obliterated. It eventually died out, however, during the Early Triassic epoch. Its nearest living relatives are the chimerae, which include both deep-sea denizens with delightfully macabre names like the ghost-fish, the spook-fish, and the rat-fish, and the more familiar rays. (Their species name derives from the fact that tissues that look like seams appear on their skin, suggesting an assemblage of different animals stitched together like the mythic Chimera.)

Like many such creatures, the Helicoprion had no bones, only cartilage, and nearly all that survives of it are the petrified tooth whorls. The rest of its form is a matter of conjecture, aided by comparative study of sharks and other selachians. The fossil ­remains are lovely, graceful things, and have inspired a number of artistic reconstructions, including those by the noted paleo-painter Ray Troll, who has been obsessed with the fish for over two decades.

Startlingly Mechanical

Scientists have struggled to understand where the teeth fit in the fish's morphology. Did the coil loll out like a massive tongue and curl downward? Or did it extend upward from its snout in a curlicue? Might it have been fully contained within the lower jaw? Or, oddly, was it appended to the dorsal fin or tail? (This last suggestion was offered by the Helicoprion's namer, Alexander Kapinsky.) All these models, as well as others, have been explored by scientists.

The most recent research on the fish involves computerized tomography imaging and virtual reconstruction of its body; it indicates that the tooth-whorl was situated in the rear of the Helicoprion's mouth. Whether this theory will win widespread acceptance remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that the teeth, regardless of where or how they were positioned, look startlingly mechanical, like a proto-buzz saw or pizza cutter. It would be scarcely less jarring to discover, for example, a pulley operating T. Rex's colossal jaws, or ball bearings in the tail of Stegosaurus.

Yet the seeming contradiction of an apparently mechanized structure in a primordial creature is not the only paradox informing the Helicoprion; the second, related to the first, is the surprising intricacy and elegance of its dentition. This is a point that has perhaps been lost on television and online productions that have featured the fish, in what might be called the "Animal Planetization" effect. Given their constituency, such shows have concentrated, inevitably, on the creature's fearsome hunting prowess, an approach evident in titles such as "Ancient Buzzsaw Killer," "Deadly River Monster," and this gem, "Chainsaw Face." While the approach is understandable, it's only part of the story.

The Wondrous Spiral

Of the extant fossils of the whorl, some are clearly articulated, while others are faded. But while each is characterized by dagger-like incisors, each also closely approximates a logarithmic spiral, a wondrous curve dubbed, appro­priately, spira mirabulis by the mathematician Jacob Bernoulli (1654–1705). What impressed him about the shape is the fact that as a logarithmic spiral grows, it maintains the exact same arc, even as the spaces between the curves increase. It thus embodies self-similarity; that is, one could isolate and measure portions of the spiral at any point, whether near its center, its middle, or its periphery, and in each instance find the exact same degree of curvature.

Bernoulli was so enchanted by this arc that he coined a personal motto based on it: Eadem mutate resurgo ("Though changed, I arise the same"). He thereby echoed and extended Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 15: "We shall be changed . . . and this mortal body must put on immortality." Changed, that is, yet retaining our essential selves. Bernoulli ordered that his tombstone be inscribed with both the aphorism and the spiral; unfortunately, the mason only got it half-right, engraving the requested saying—along with an assertion that the deceased was "awaiting the resurrection"—but etching instead an Archimedean spiral. This is an attractive but less complex curve seen, for example, in cinnamon rolls, coiled carpets, duct tape, and circular mazes. It, too, maintains the same degree of curvature, but far less interestingly, growing merely by unvarying accretion, since the distance between the layers always remains the same.

A number of elegant natural objects follow the sinuous, mesmerizing pattern of the logarithmic spiral. They include such icons as the chambered nautilus and the Pinwheel and Whirlpool galaxies, as well as less famous examples, such as the beaches rimming Half Moon Bay.

The stunning nature of the logarithmic spiral is also evident in the fact that some of them constitute what is known as the Golden Spiral, a shape based on what is often regarded as the most exquisite number, the so-called Golden Number, an irrational number that in decimal form approximates to 1.618. While not all Golden Spirals are logarithmic ones, they serve to configure a number of natural objects; among these are certain nautilus shells and, strangely, the corneal cells of mice.

Beauty & Menace

Still, it is one thing to thrill to the influence of logarithmic spirals in lovely things like mollusks, stars, and flowers, and quite another to appreciate them in the maw of the Helicoprion, a creature that gives the phrase "killing machine" fresh, almost literal purchase. Ruthless efficiency, not aesthetics, would seem to be the sole reason for the sweeping arc in the fish's jaws. Indeed, according to paleontologists, as the fish matured, the coil would grow larger. Smaller, older teeth would rotate through and descend into its jaw while newer, more sizable ones emerged from the back.

Yet the Helicoprion is not the only creature that embodies this paradoxical blend of menace and beauty. It's worth noting that logarithmic spirals are also approximated in the flight paths of Peregrine Falcons when they descend for a kill: the looping pattern allows the raptors to use their eyesight more effectively than a direct dive would. Moreover, the spirals inform the name and shape of one of our planet's most devastating natural disasters, that is, the cyclone, from the Greek kykloma, for "wheel" or "circle."

Modernity often likes to think of itself as having discovered nature's darker secrets, especially the blend of elegance and horror in the lives of animals and insects. This epiphany is voiced in touchstones such as William Blake's framing of the tiger's "fearful symmetry"; in Darwin's revulsion at the parasitic wasp, feeding on the living bodies of its victims with appalling efficiency; and in one of Robert Frost's most exquisite poems, the ironically titled "Design," which reflects on the killing of a moth by a spider. One can easily imagine the Helicoprion evoking similarly horrified fascination.

But in fact, such truths were recognized, indeed celebrated, much earlier by at least one pre-modern author, himself something of a naturalist as well as a poet. He depicts God speaking to Job out of the whirlwind, upbraiding him for his lack of knowledge, and limning breathtaking creatures such as the Behemoth and the Leviathan. If the Helicoprion had somehow survived into Job's day, it is not difficult to imagine it being included in the divine blazon of nature's splendors. Indeed, one of God's questions about the Leviathan could apply equally well to the Helicoprion, when God demands of Job, "Who can open the doors of his face?" and then declares, "His teeth are terrible round about" (41:14).

A Higher Logic

In seeking to open the doors of the Helicoprion's face, as it were, scientists have labored for decades, and we are still uncertain about precisely what it looked like. But God knows; indeed, he has always known, because he is the Creator of all things, both lovely and dreadful. In Isaiah's words, he "makes woe and weal," forming, among other things, this fish's remarkable wheel, and setting it turning in a beguiling circle. The rotation would have enabled this marine creature to dominate its environment.

Yet the logarithm informing the whorl suggests as well a higher logic, even a rhythm; perhaps we could call it the rhythm of the Logos. For this fossil and its curve might serve as an unlikely reminder of the hope of the resurrection. The long-dead fish has been "resurrected" today, but only through fossils and 3-D imaging. Yet by contemplating these reconstructions, we can anticipate a different and better course; with Bernoulli and all the saints, we can confess, Eadem mutate resurgo.  

is a professor of English at Marshall University in West Virginia, focusing on the intersection of literature and science, especially through the study of geomythology, a hybrid discipline. He has published geomythical articles in Earth magazine and the journal Folklore. His work has also appeared in Touchstone, Books and Culture, Christianity and Literature, Milton Studies, and Milton Quarterly. He and his wife have two children and are members of ECO Presbyterian Church.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #47, Winter 2018 Copyright © 2019 Salvo |