Shark teeth buried in the sands of Florida’s warm sunny beaches and new lab equipment at Indiana University are helping a Hoosier geologist dig into research that could explain dangerously high fluoride levels in some Indiana groundwater.
Tracy Branam, a research scientist at the Indiana Geological and Water Survey, began analyzing groundwater in southern Indiana in the late 1980s as part of his doctorate degree.
During this time, Branam and his wife would visit Venice, Florida, and collect shark teeth. One beach, called Caspersen, is known as the shark tooth capital of the world due to the abundance of teeth found there. The town even hosts an annual Shark Tooth Festival each spring. The teeth the couple found there were added to those his mother had previously collected from Florida.
As Branam’s groundwater research simmered on the back burner, IGWS went through a changing of the guard.
New director brings new opportunities
Six years ago, Todd Thompson became the director of the institute that researches and collects geologic data and information related to energy, mineral and water resources in the state. The survey funding comes partially from a biennial state appropriation as well as federal and state grant programs.
Thompson brought a different view on how to conduct research. Generally, there are two concepts when it comes to research requiring specialized lab equipment, Thompson explained. You can have your own equipment and conduct work in-house or send samples out to private labs.
He preferred, when feasible, to keep the work in-house. But there was a problem.
“A lot of our lab equipment and field equipment was long in the tooth and we were not able to do what we needed,” Thompson said. “One important thing I wanted to do was get back into doing our own processing of data and material.”
Under Thompson’s guidance, the survey’s building went through some renovations, brining lab designs from the ‘50s and ‘60s up to date. That made the space more flexible for modern day equipment. Early on, a piece of lab equipment could be as big as a refrigerator, leaving little room for multiple pieces. Today’s equipment could be as small as a toaster, providing more room in each lab for various machines.
“I like to brag,” Thompson said, “and say we went from mid-20th century to state of the art 21st century labs.”
Thompson and the IWGS first brought in equipment to help researchers determine the age of quartz. Next came a machine called X-Ray Fluorescence that provides an analysis of the elements within a sample to determine chemical compounds.
Another recent addition, an instrument called an autotitrator, replaced a manual machine that only worked sporadically. The new equipment measures different aspects of groundwater, including hardness and fluoride levels. It also can determine the amount of apatite present in samples.
The new autotitrator will allow Branam to revive his decades-old research into fluoride and groundwater. More than 25 years after his research began, he will finally have a chance to put his shark-tooth theory to the test.
But what do sharks teeth have to do with water in Indiana?
Fossil records show researchers have found fossilized shark teeth throughout a good part of the state, Branam said. About 300 million years ago, during the Pennsylvanian age, part of southern Indiana was a marine environment while the northern part of the state was land. It was then that sharks swam in what we today call the Midwest.
That area filled in relatively quickly — at least in geological terms — with sediment, which Branam explained preserved those fossils quite well.
Even though Indiana is home to these fossilized shark teeth, it’s impractical to use them in the lab as they’re very fragmented and the core samples geologists pull from those depths are small. So to test his long-held hypothesis, Branam will use a mortar and pestle to crush some of his own fossilized shark tooth collection.