When Martin Becker was thirteen, his parents gave him an option: go to summer school, or find a job. Since he spent his summers at the Jersey shore, he turned to the ocean and began to work as a clammer, a job that he returned to each summer for nearly two decades; he used some of the money to fund his undergraduate and graduate education.
“Sharks would occasionally frequent the bays and inlet areas where clamming was productive,” he says. “This was particularly interesting during the early years after the movie Jaws came out in theaters.”
Today, Becker, a professor of environmental science at William Paterson, is one of the world’s leading experts on U.S. fossil sharks. His research has taken him across the United States to gather fossilized teeth from sharks that became extinct during the Upper Cretaceous period, ninety to sixty-five million years ago, the same time that dinosaurs roamed the Earth.
Shark teeth fossils are valuable for dating geologic deposits. When sharks die, and the cartilage dissolves, the teeth become covered with sandy sediment, which blocks the absorption of oxygen and bacteria and preserves the specimen. “Shark teeth are index fossils,” Becker explains. “They are important markers of time change and the distribution of the oceans millions and millions of years ago.”
Finding the shark teeth fossils—which can range in size from a few millimeters to ten centimeters—is painstaking work that usually takes place along river beds, where the running water has caused erosion. “It’s like panning for gold; we use mesh sieves and sift through sediment from the bottom of shallow water,” he explains. “Determining the difference between a fossil tooth and a rock takes a careful eye, because they are often very small.”
Becker regularly involves students in his research. “It’s a great rush to see a student find a good fossil,” he says. “I see myself in them—the thrill of discovery, adventure.”