Less than a week ago, I wrote an article about why Megalodon – the gigantic, whale-eating shark species – went extinct. Just three days later, a team of researchers published a ground-breaking paper about Megalodon.
Talk about perfect timing…
The study, published on August 17th by the Pimento Research Group, is an extensive examination of Megalodon’s biology and ecology. Using a combination of teeth, vertebrae, and inferences from the modern Great White Shark, the research team created an unprecedented three-dimensional model of Megalodon. This model has revealed information previously unknown to scientists that helps to paint a fuller picture of prehistory’s most deadly – and mysterious – predator.
Putting the Pieces Together…
Unfortunately for paleontologists, shark bones are made of cartilage, which rarely fossilizes. Because of this, paleontologists could only estimate Megalodon’s size and appearance based on their teeth. Though Megalodon vertebrae have been discovered, they are usually rare and often found isolated. As you can imagine, this isn’t exactly a precise method…
Enter the Belgium specimen. Discovered in 1843, the Belgium specimen is an exception to Megalodon’s vertebrae issue. The specimen consists of 141(!!) vertebrae that belonged to one individual, believed to have been around 46 years of age[i]. The vertebrae, put alongside a Megalodon dentary from the United States and the body scan of Carcharodon carcharis (the Great White Shark), allowed the team to create the first 3D model of Megalodon[ii].
There’s Always a Bigger Fish…Unless You’re Megalodon.
We already knew Megalodon was the biggest shark ever, but exact figures have evaded paleontologists. Historic estimations of size have varied between 10 and 25 meters in length – a humpback whale could fit between the two! Using the model, the Pimento group calculated that Megalodon was approximately 16 meters long[iii]. Their calculation of Megalodon’s weight was more astonishing: at a whopping 61.5 tonnes, Megalodon weighed more than 25 Great whites! A funny – and terrifying – stat produced was the width of Megalodon’s jaws when opened, calculated at 1.8 meters[iv]. The average human being is approximately 1.75 meters tall, meaning that Megalodon could swallow us whole! If you weren’t already happy that they are extinct, you might be now….
Cruising the Open Oceans, Megalodon style!
The first new development of the study was the swimming speed of Megalodon. Using cruising speeds of modern sharks in relation to body mass, the Pimento team calculated a mean cruising speed of 1.4 meters per second (5 km/hour)[v]. While this may not seem impressive, there are two things to note. First, this is the cruising speed of Megalodon, aka the casual pace it goes at while swimming. Second, this would be the fastest cruising speed of any living shark! Though burst speeds could not be calculated, it’s clear that Megalodon’s steady pace could have enabled cross-oceanic journeys in search of prey.
Ever wonder how much food a 16-meter shark could eat? Well, the Pimento study has the answer. Using the Great White as a proxy, Megalodon was calculated to have a stomach volume of approximately 9,605 litres[vi]. In more relative terms, Megalodon could fully ingest prey up to 8 meters in length, as large as modern killer whales. Yes, a killer whale could fit quite comfortably in Meg’s stomach! The width of Megalodon’s jaws suggests they could consume those 8-meter-long prey in as few as five bites. And my parents say that I eat too fast!
Megalodon’s dietary needs – and how it could achieve those needs – were calculated as well. Based on the model, Megalodon required almost 100,000 kilocalories per day, over 20x that of a Great White[vii]. While this may seem like an enormous amount of food, Megalodon’s diet consisted of prey rich in nutrients. Whale blubber and shark livers are highly nutritious items and could have helped sustain Megalodon for extended periods.
My favourite part of this study is when it describes how long Megalodon could be sustained by each of its potential prey options. Prey approximately 3 meters long, such as dolphins, could sustain Megalodon for a mere day-and-a-half. A single mid-sized prey animal – 6-8 meter-long animals like Orcas, Great Whites, and its favourite, small whales – could last Megalodon 2 months. The largest whales could sustain Megalodon for approximately 5 months, making them valuable meals. The good news for whales is that Megalodon didn’t have to eat that often. The bad news? When it did, it could swallow them in a few bites.
Too Good to be True?
To say this study is unprecedented is an understatement. Research on the ecology of prehistoric animals – especially those with few skeletal remains like sharks – is almost impossible. Things like feeding capacity and swimming speeds are rarely diagnosable in extinct species, making their revelation in studies like this one special.
There is something important that needs to be addressed. The results of this study relied heavily on inferences made from the physiology of the Great White Shark. It is unclear how closely the two species are related to each other, meaning that results based on inferring traits may be imprecise. Having said that, speculation is always required in the field of paleontology. The creatures of the past certainly wouldn’t be as interesting without a little bit of imagination.
Thank you for reading today’s article! If you want to know more about Megalodon and would like to know why it isn’t eating canoers in the present, read about “Why did Megalodon go Extinct,” Here at Max’s Blogosaurus!
I do not take credit for any images found in this article.
Header image courtesy of RJ Palmer, found at his website here
Megalodon and the Thresher Shark courtesy of Esther Van Hulsen, found here
Megalodon model courtesy of the Pimento Research Group, Cooper et al, at their study here
Sperm Whale attack courtesy of Jamie Bran, found here
Scavenging Megalodon courtesy of Jamie Bran, found here
[i] K. Shimada, M. F. Bonnan, M. A. Becker, M. L. Griffiths, Ontogenetic growth pattern of the extinct megatooth shark Otodus megalodon—Implications for its reproductive biology, development, and life expectancy. Hist. Biol. 33, 3254–3259 (2021)
[ii] Cooper, Jack A., et al. “The Extinct Shark Otodus Megalodon Was a Transoceanic Superpredator: Inferences from 3D Modeling.” Science Advances, vol. 8, no. 33, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abm9424.
[iii] See above.
[iv] See #2.
[v] See #2.
[vi] See #2.
[vii] See #2.