New Year’s Day 2016 and we were walking alongside the Manse Burn as it flows through Baljaffray to the north of Bearsden. Sunny and bright, but very cold, it was hard to imagine that 330 million years ago the land here not only lay close to the Equator, but was covered in tropical lagoons and teeming with marine life! But thanks to Bearsden’s oldest known resident – the Bearsden Shark – it’s possible to know what kind of creatures lived here and what sort of environment they lived in.
The first indication that the Manse Burn was a rich source of fossils came in 1981 when a young boy found something that he couldn’t identify and took it to Stan Wood, a local fossil expert.
Not long after, the Hunterian Museum of Glasgow University organised an excavation and began to unearth an abundance of fossils which eventually included the most complete and best preserved fossil shark of its kind in the whole world! In fact the area along the Manse Burn turned out to be so rich in fossils that it was declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is one of the best Carboniferous fish sites anywhere.
From the reconstruction it’s easy to see that it was a strange looking beast and scientists have discovered that not only did it have teeth in its mouth, but also along the top of its head and around its distinctive dorsal fin!! A formidable foe indeed!
It was identified as a male shark belonging to the group known as Stethacanthidae: and not only was the Bearsden Shark fossil complete – or as ‘complete’ as a fossil can be – but it was so well preserved that it was possible to identify muscles, blood vessels and even his last meal! However, even though unearthed more than thirty years ago, it took nearly twenty years to finally decide that it was indeed a new species and in 2001 it was given the name of ‘akmonistion zangerli’: though most people (understandably) still refer to it simply as the Bearsden Shark!
Such is his fame that he has had a poem composed about his life (The Bearsden Shark by Edwin Morgan), as well as a number of PhDs written in his honour and now has a cairn and information board beside the Manse Burn in Baljaffray to mark his importance in our understanding of life all those millions of years ago. The new board and cairn were unveiled by Dr Neil Clark, curator of Palaeontology at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum, whose reconstruction of the Bearsden Shark is shown above.
A cold-blooded killer from the Carboniferous Era, our shark, like millions of other creatures “softly and suddenly vanished away”: so suddenly in this case that he didn’t have enough time to fully digest his final fish supper – made up of shrimps! – but nonetheless he did leave a lasting legacy from 330 million years ago. Not bad for a Bearsden Boy!
The Bearsden Shark by Edwin Morgan