A fossilized tooth that belonged to the biggest shark known to science has been stolen from a world heritage site in Western Australia, officials have confirmed.
The 8cm (3in) sharply serrated tooth, which belonged to a shark from the Megalodon species and was at least 1.6 million years old, was taken from the Cape Range National Park in the Pilbara region.
Arvid Hogstrom from Parks and Wildlife in Western Australia said not many people knew the location of the tooth, which had been hidden with vegetation and rocks within the park.
"There was only a few key local people who actually knew where it was," he told Australian broadcaster ABC.
"It could be someone who doesn't know what they've taken. It could be an amateur collector who wants to add to their collection, or it could be someone who wants to trade it on the black market."
The Megalodon grew as big as 18m (59ft) long and is regarded by scientists as among the largest and most powerful fish to have ever roamed the world's oceans.
The ancient predator is believed to have preyed on primitive baleen whales, and its extinction around 1.6 million years ago has been linked to whales growing bigger to attain their current massive sizes.
Hogstrom said his team had been working on a way to preserve and protect the fossilized tooth and put it on display for the public.
"There's another [Megalodon tooth] that is quite well known, and a lot of tour companies and buses go in there and have a look at it," he stated.
"Whereas this one was specifically hidden away because we realized it was a better specimen and we were looking at ways of protecting it."
Hogstrom appealed for information from anyone who has knowledge of the fossil's whereabouts and said he hoped whoever took it would return it intact.
"The tooth has been floating around on the seafloor for quite some time. It's been pushed up into the ranges and was sitting there undisturbed for however long," he said.
"Now someone's come along with a bit of a chisel and simply taken it away."