CALVERT BEACH, Md. -- A 9-year-old aspiring paleontologist found the find of a lifetime on Christmas morning: a massive 5-inch tooth from a prehistoric megalodon.
Molly Sampson, a fourth grader from Prince Frederick, Maryland, made the astonishing find on Calvert Beach.
Molly told CNN that she has spent years combing Maryland's beaches for shark teeth, inspired by her father's love of fossils.
"They're just cool because they're really old," she said.
Molly's mother Alicia Sampson added that her daughter has long harbored a love of exploring the outdoors. "She loves treasure hunting," she explained.
Maryland's Calvert Cliffs State Park is known as a hotspot for fossil finding, Alicia Sampson added.
For Christmas, Molly asked her parents for cold-water waders so that she could hunt for shark teeth and other fossils in the Chesapeake Bay. Equipped with her new gear, she set out at 9:30 a.m. to search for the remnants of ancient predators.
"I saw something big, and it looked like a shark tooth," she said. "We were about knee deep in the water."
She explained that she tried to grab the tooth with a sifting tool, but it was too big. She was "amazed" when she realized just how large the tooth was. "I was so excited and surprised."
The Sampsons took their exciting find to the Calvert Marine Museum, where paleontology curator Stephen Godfrey confirmed their suspicions: It was indeed the tooth of a megalodon, the massive sharks that lived more than 23 million years ago.
Godfrey told CNN that there are usually only five or six megalodon teeth comparable in size to Molly's find discovered along Calvert Cliffs each year.
"There are people that can spend a lifetime and not find a tooth the size Molly found," he said.
"This is like a once-in-a-lifetime kind of find."
Amateur fossil hunters typically find around 100 megalodon teeth on Calvert Cliffs per year, he added. But most of them are much smaller than Molly's huge tooth. The largest megalodon teeth ever found have been just over 7 inches.
The size of the tooth indicates that this particular megalodon was between 45 and 50 feet long.
Godfrey explained that millions of years ago, the waters off Calvert Cliffs would have been home to whales and dolphins that would have served as bountiful prey for megalodons looking to eat. Because sharks replace their teeth over the course of their lives and because the teeth are made up of hardy enamel, they are "by far the most abundant vertebrate fossil."
Megalodons hold a particular fascination for humans because they served as the "apex predator on Earth" for millions of years, he said.
Both Godfrey and Alicia Sampson said they hope Molly's find helps inspire other children, especially girls, to pursue their scientific interests.
"This will inspire people of all ages, children included, to pursue their natural inclination in nature, art music, there's so many possibilities that are available to us today," said Godfrey.
Alicia Sampson said children around the globe have sent letters to Molly sharing their excitement at her discovery. She set up an Instagram page to share her daughters' outdoor adventures.
"We really want to reach other kids and get them excited about like being outside," she said.
Molly said she hopes to display the huge tooth in a shadowbox in her room -- and one day hopes to become a paleontologist.
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