Filed Under Museums

Dunkleosteus

Hunting Prehistoric Monsters in the Cleveland Metroparks

Buried in the shale cliffs of Cleveland Metroparks Rocky River Reservation, the bony armor of a prehistoric monster was uncovered by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in 1928. The discovery of these fossilized remains, along with the subsequent amassing of Devonian era specimens from the Cleveland Metroparks, helped set the stage for the museum to emerge as a prestigious scientific institution.

Dragged silently downward by the weight of its armored head, the Dunkleosteus terrelli’s lifeless body disappeared into a murky cloud rising from the sea floor.  A death shroud of mud and freshly deposited sediment encased the remains.  As the body disintegrated in the stagnant oxygen-starved environment, organic chemicals were released into the surrounding ooze and triggered the formation of a casing around the decomposing matter. Sediments continued to accumulate above the remains. Pressure and chemical reactions turned the muds into shale, and the concretion to stone. The Dunkleosteus lay entombed for over 360 million years, when the clinks of a pick against stone rejoined the fearsome predator with the living world in the summer of 1928.  

This was no happenstance reunion; Peter Bungart and Jesse Earl Hyde of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History had been hunting sharks and armored fish in the Cleveland Metropolitan Park System for almost six years.  Walking along the river’s edge in the Rocky River Reservation, the intrepid duo observed a curved shape in the shale nearly 20 feet above them.  Bungart, a paleontologist, scaled the steep wall and wielded the tool of his trade.  A bone of the Dunkleosteus was found.  With permission of the Park Board, they returned ten days later to excavate the prehistoric monster. Its ancient tomb was carved from the cliff, and lowered to the bank of the Rocky River in 300 pound chunks. The solidified remains of primeval mud, ooze and petrified bone were transported to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s headquarters on East 9th Street and Euclid Avenue.

Bungart patiently chipped away at the stone in the basement of museum headquarters for nearly eight years. Armed with a dental drill, hammer, chisel, and blow torch, he released the Dunkleosteus from its encasement. With equal perseverance, the flattened remnants of the warrior fish were reshaped and the prehistoric puzzle was pieced together.  Only the bony armor comprising the predatory placoderm’s skull survived, but Bungart’s reconstruction was still the largest and most complete non-composite representation of the Dunkleosteus terrelli species  in the world.  Following the discovery of the armored fish by Ohio geologist Jay Terrill in 1867 along the shale banks of Cove Beach in Sheffield Lake, fossilized remains of the Dunkleosteus had been displayed at prestigious institutions such as the British Museum and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Bungart’s monster, culled from the rocks of the Rocky River Reservation, became the first distinguished fossil fish specimen of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
   
The frightening vision of prehistoric life not only helped accredit the Cleveland Museum of Natural History as a relevant scientific institution, but presented a means for the new museum to promote its mission of public education. Imaginations in Cleveland had long run wild over the vicious fish that thrived in the region during the Devonian Period. Similar to its massive dinosaur successors, exhibition of the attention-grabbing skull discretely passed on scientific knowledge to curious museum visitors. Without a whisper, the peculiar depiction of ancient life inspired awe while evoking questions about geology and evolution.   

The petrified bones also helped validate the need for conservation and preservation of land within the Cleveland Metropolitan Park System. The taxes of Clevelanders were being funneled to the development of parks on the outskirts of the city, necessitating regular illustrations of the undertaking’s public benefits. The budget and efforts of the Park Board, however, were focused on the acquisition and development of land during these formative years.  Providing civic institutions such as the Cleveland Museum of Natural History access to parklands for field work and educational programming was paramount to inscribing value into the landscape.

Until the 1950s, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History took the lead in developing educational programming and performing scientific research in the park system. Fossil hunting expeditions continued, and the museum soon amassed a world-renowned collection of Devonian fish fossils. Both Big Creek and Rocky River Reservations proved to be incredibly fertile grounds for unearthing long-hidden vestiges of armored fish and sharks. Even as the museum’s collection expanded in size and diversity, the vicious predator Dunkleosteus terrelli remained the most famous of the prehistoric placoderms.  The Cleveland Museum of Natural History continues to maintain its notable collection of specimens, one of which is displayed in Kirtland Hall on museum grounds.  The cast of a Dunkleosteus skull, accompanied by a model representation of the armored fish in its horrifying entirety, can be viewed at the Cleveland Metroparks Rocky River Nature Center.

Audio

The Geologic Record of the Cleveland Metroparks Dr. Joseph Hannibal, curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, explains what rock formations and fossils tell us about the geologic history of the Cleveland Metroparks. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
The Dunkleosteus Mike Durkalec, aquatic biologist for the Cleveland Metroparks, describes Cleveland's famous Devonian predator - the Dunkleosteus. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
Prehistoric Fish of the Rocky River Cleveland Metroparks Aquatic Biologist Mike Durkalec describes some non-fossilized prehistoric fish that can be found in the Rocky River. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Images

Excavation of Dunkleosteus terrelli, 1928 Pictured above is the excavation of a Dunkleosteus terrelli by Peter Bungart of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in the Rocky River Reservation. The specimen was discovered in the Late Devonian Cleveland shale strata, known by paleontologists for its well-preserved fossils of armored fish and sharks. Source: The Jesse Earl Hyde Collection, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) Department of Geological Sciences
Rocky River Nature Center, 1972 While long extinct, the idea that a fearsome arthrodire was once an inhabitant of the region grabs the attention of young and old alike. The exhibition of realistic models and ancient fossils isn't always mere spectacle, however. Displays are often used by education institutions to encourage the exploration of sciences such as geology, biology, and paleontology. Creator: Courtesy of Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Peter Bungart Reconstructing a Dunkelosteus Terrelli Peter Bungart was hired by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History as a paleontologist in 1923. For the duration of his 25 year career, Bungart worked tirelessly growing the museum's collection of Devonian fish specimens. He was well known for his skills in both locating and preparing fossils. To commemorate his work, an armored fish genus that he discovered was named Bungartius perissus. Source: The Jesse Earl Hyde Collection, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) Department of Geological Sciences
Jaws of an Apex Predator The Dunkleosteus terrelli sat atop the food chain during the Devonian period, and is considered the fiercest predator of its time.  While not the fastest swimmer, paleontoligists estimate that the armored fish opened its mouth in one-fiftieth of a second; this created a vacume that sucked unlucky prey toward their doom within the clenches of razor-sharp jaw-bones and creepy fangs. When biting down, the Dunkleosteus concentrated over 8,000 pounds per square inch of force at the tip of its mouth. The powerful bite enabled the opportunistic predator to feed upon other armored fish. Markings found on fossilized remains of the Dunkleosteus terrelli suggest that the glutonous feeders had a penchant for cannibalism. Source: The Jesse Earl Hyde Collection, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) Department of Geological Sciences
Reconstructing a Dunkleosteus terrelli The Dunkleosteus terrelli measured nearly 20 feet from tail to bony fang, and weighed as much as two tons. While the armor, vertebrates, and skull of the fish survived in the fossil record, the cartilaginous bodies evaded chronicling.  Reconstructions of the Dunkleosteus were modeled on a 1-2 foot long Devonian fish named Coccosteus, which shared similar attributes to the armored predator. Source: Courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks
A Dunkleosteus Discovered at Big Creek Reservation, 1930 Peter Bungart (far left) is joined by Dr. Anatol Heintz of Norway (middle) for an excavation in Big Creek Reservation.  Since the mid-1800s, the diversity, quality, and quantity of fossilized remains found in Cleveland shale have attracted the attention of paleontologists and geologists from around the world.  A Dunkleosteus jaw was entombed within the concretion halve pictured above. Source: The Jesse Earl Hyde Collection, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) Department of Geological Sciences
Excavation at Big Creek, 1927 Fossil hunters from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History haul a concretion up the bank in Big Creek Reservation. Encased in the stone was the head and fore fins of a Cladoselache. The remains of this Devonian shark species were incredibly well-preserved within Cleveland shale; some specimens have even yielded visual traces of the Cladoselache's organs, muscles and skin. Source: The Jesse Earl Hyde Collection, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) Department of Geological Sciences
Shark Fishing in Big Creek Reservation During the Upper Devonian epoch, the shallow inland waters covering much of northeast Ohio attracted an array of sharks and armored fish.  Cleveland shale, formed from mud that once covered the sea floor, offers paleontologists a richly-detailed chronology of Devonian sea life. The large concretion displayed in the photo contained a five-foot primitive shark. . Source: The Jesse Earl Hyde Collection, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) Department of Geological Sciences
A Concretion in Big Creek Reservation, 1926 The concretion being opened by Peter Bungart dates back to the Devonian. Known as the "Age of Fishes," sharks and fishes diversified and became more common during this geologic period which lasted from 416 million to 358 million years ago. The land that currently makes up Cuyahoga County was located just below the equator, and was covered by an inland sea. Source: The Jesse Earl Hyde Collection, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) Department of Geological Sciences
Cleveland Shale Pictured above is Peter Bungart excavating a concretion from Cleveland shale in Big Creek Reservation. This shale strata extends from the Chagrin River to the Vermillion River in beds between 10 and 100 feet thick, and is famous for its fossilized remains. Source: The Jesse Earl Hyde Collection, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) Department of Geological Sciences
Prehistoric Play Pit While a permit is needed to dig for fossils in the Cleveland Metroparks, visitors to Big Creek Reservation can still unearth evidence of ancient life at the Prehistoric Play Pit exhibit. The dig site features a full size model of a Mastodon's fossilized remains; the shaggy-haired beasts roamed North America during the Ice Age. Source: Courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks
I-71 Under Construction Big Creek Reservation and Rocky River Reservation were incredibly fertile grounds for the discovery of Devonian period fish fossils by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. With the construction of Interstate 71 along park grounds in 1965, the National Museum of Natural History worked in collaboration with Cleveland's museum to trail behind road crews in search of upturned fossil remains. Dr. David Dunkle, the Associate Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at Smithsonian Institution, acted as supervising scientific consultant. Through a grant from the National Science Foundation, the remains were sorted, cataloged, cleaned, and added to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History's famed collection of Devonian fossils. Source: Courtesy of Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Burial Grounds of the Dinichthys terrelli, 1928
The armored fish found by Peter Bungart and Jesse Earl Hyde in the cliffs of Rocky River Reservation was known as a Dinichthys terrell at the time of its unearthing. The armored fish was renamed in the mid 20th century following the discovery that the "terrible fish" should be classified within a new family. The name Dunkleosteus terrelli was bestowned upon the genus in honor of David Dunkle, a former curator of paleontology and superisor of research at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.  Dunkle was an authority on the Dinichthys terrelli, and helped amass the museum's world-class collection of Devonian fish fossils.

Location

Metadata

Richard Raponi, “Dunkleosteus,” Cleveland Historical, accessed August 17, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/728.