It took nearly a decade, but Molly Sampson found what she'd been searching for her whole life.
It happened Christmas morning, when the 9-year-old girl was out searching for shark teeth with family in Calvert Beach, Maryland.
It was there Molly waded into the cold waters of the Chesapeake Bay and pulled out the once-in-a-lifetime find: A 5-inch megalodon tooth.
"She was over the moon excited," Molly's mother, Alicia Sampson, told USA TODAY Wednesday. "It was something she dreamt about finding. She's been shark tooth hunting since age 1 when she would crawl along the beach."
A homeschooled student from Prince Frederick, Molly has collected more than 400shark teeth since before she could walk. But the Dec. 25 discovery marked the fourth-grade girl's biggest find yet.
Stephen Godfrey, curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum where the girl took her find, confirmed the tooth belonged to the extinct shark the Megalodon (Otodus megalodon), which disappeared millions of years ago.
The meg is believed to be one of the largest predators that ever lived until its extinction, and scientists think it could have grown up to 50 to 60 feet long. For a long time, scientists believed the megalodon's closest relative was the great white shark, but research shows it is most closely related to the mako shark, according to the Smithsonian.
Chest waders for Christmas
Last year, Alicia Sampson said, Molly and her 17-year-old sister, Natalie, asked for insulated chest waders as a Christmas present for shark-tooth hunting.
The siblings' wish came true when they opened gifts Christmas morning and as soon as they finished breakfast, the girls and their dad, Bruce Sampson, headed to nearby Calvert Cliffs.
While wading in cold knee-deep water, Molly said she noticed the tooth, reached both arms into the water and grabbed it.
"I was so surprised," Molly told USA TODAY by phone Wednesday. "I thought I was dreaming. I didn't think it was real."
Rare size for megalodon tooth
Molly said she put the tooth into a beach bag and went to the museum to have experts check it out.
"They were really excited," Molly said.
"Megalodon teeth are found on a fairly regular basis along Calvert Cliffs, however one that large are rare indeed. Perhaps a few each year," Godfrey said.
Because of its large teeth, experts think it feasted on whales and large fish, and probably other sharks. From the size of the tooth, Godfrey said, it would have come from a fish between 45-50 feet long. He also said that based on where the tooth was found and the age of the sediments from which it most likely originated, the tooth is likely some 15 million years old.
Friendly fossil-hunting feud
As she hunted for oyster mushrooms in woods near her home Wednesday morning during a school field trip with her mother and sister, Molly explained she wasn't the first in her family to find a massive shark tooth.
Her dad, who has been fossil hunting in the area along Chesapeake Bay since he was a kid, also snagged one a few years back.
But hers was "much bigger."
"His was three inches. It's like a baby," Molly said laughing.
Molly said she plans to keep the ginormous relic in her collection, and maybe one day put it in a shadow box.
In the meantime, she said she's considering becoming a paleontologist when she grows up, or "something involving working with animals."
Natalie Neysa Alund covers trending news for USA TODAY. Reach her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @nataliealund.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rare megalodon tooth found by young girl at Maryland's Calvert Beach
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