An unprecedented collection of 182 ferocious prehistoric shark teeth, assembled on gaping jaws large enough to swallow several humans whole, is set to be auctioned in Texas.
The teeth are those of the ancient Megalodon, a massive killer shark whose name literally means "big tooth" in Greek. The predators trolled warm ocean waters 1.5 million to 25 million years ago, growing longer than the size of one or possibly two city buses and eating whales and dolphins for snacks.
Each tooth was collected by amateur fossil hunter Vito Bertucci, who spent nearly two decades plucking Megalodon teeth from the shores of South Carolina and Georgia before he was killed in a 2004 diving accident. He was 47.
"He lived for this, and he also died for it," said his brother, Joseph Bertucci, a beverage manager at a beach club in Long Island who wears a shark's tooth on a gold necklace that his brother made for him. "Sharks' teeth were his passion."
The 9-by-11 foot jaws being sold in June by Heritage Auctions in Dallas -- starting bid, $625,000 -- are the biggest of several jaws Vito Bertucci made with the Megalodon teeth he collected over the years. It is billed by Heritage as "the largest set of prehistoric shark jaws ever assembled."
The collection has four teeth more than 7 inches long, which is rare, said Peter Wiggins, assistant director of Heritage's natural history auctions. He said while the jaws themselves are made from Plexiglas, the teeth are fossils the likes of which have individually sold for $10,000 to $15,000 in recent years.
Some scientists, however, question the accuracy of the jaws' size and tooth placement. A professional jeweler, Vito Bertucci used his talent for casting and molding to place the fossilized teeth into what he thought would be their proper position on the massive jaws, his brother said.
"The problem here is the size," said shark fossil expert Kenshu Shimada at DePaul University. "That's highly, highly over-exaggerated."
Shimada said it appears the large front teeth, taken from several Megalodons, are repeated too many times and the rate of decline to smaller teeth is much slower than it should be.
"There's some controversy as to how large these animals were," said Tom Demere, curator of paleontology at the San Diego Natural History Museum, which displays a 37-foot-long model of a female Megalodon. "All we really have are the teeth and some vertebrae to go on."
Demere also doubts the accuracy of the size of the jaws Bertucci used to assemble his collection, but said he considers the teeth "beautiful specimens."
Joseph Bertucci said his brother was always proud of the jaws he made.
"He would drag it around, he'd show it off wherever he could," said Joseph Bertucci, adding that his brother was especially pleased when the jaws could be shown at a museum and used for education.
For now, he'd have his wish. The jaws being sold by Heritage are on display at the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas, where they will stay until the auction.
Jennifer Whitus, the museum's communications manager, said she hopes the winning bidder considers donating the jaws back to the institution.
"Our paleontologists have been drooling over it," Whitus said. "We'd love for him to stay here."
Paleontologists aren't the only ones. The museum also has been abuzz with excited visitors.
Shawna Quinn's own jaw dropped as she came around the corner and saw the Megalodon fossils during a recent visit.
"That is crazy," the 38-year-old suburban Dallas mom said. "I can't even imagine that there was a shark that big."
When Denise Lee, 35, of Garland, pointed out the wide open shark's mouth as she toured the exhibit with family and friends, 4-year-old Birt Finney had just one question.
"Are we going in?" he asked hopefully.
Associated Press Writer Susanne M. Schafer in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.