The mighty megalodon keeps its crown as one of the largest sharks to have ever lived. It was an apex predator of prehistory, reigning the seas and raining teeth on ocean floors, until its ultimate extinction around a couple million years ago.
Despite having died out far before any of our lifetimes, megalodons manage to live on, swimming and zipping through the depths of our fantastical imaginations. Here’s what to know about this ancient superpredator, who dwarfs today’s great whites and killer whales.
Megalodon Facts: What Is a Megalodon?
The megalodon, an ancient and colossal shark species, has long been a subject of fascination in both scientific research and popular culture. You might imagine a megalodon, one of the largest sharks ever to exist, to look like the gigantic version of a great white shark, but the two species actually descend from different lineages – megalodons being the last of the now extinct lineage of megatooth sharks.
Are Megalodons Real?
Contrary to what might be a figment of our wildest aquatic fantasies, megalodons were indeed real. These formidable predators once reigned supreme in prehistoric waters, leaving behind a legacy etched in the fossil records – a legacy primarily composed of their enormous teeth scattered across ocean floors worldwide.
What Did a Megalodon Look Like?
According to the Natural History Museum, it’s likely that, compared to modern sharks, megalodons would have a shorter snout, longer pectoral fins, and a flattened jaw, wide enough to swallow two adult humans put side by side.
How Big Is a Megalodon?
A scale diagram comparing the size of megalodon, great white shark, and man (Credit: EreborMountain/Shutterstock)
The largest megalodon could grow as big as 60 feet in length – meaning, if stood up vertically, it would be as tall as a six-story building. To put it another way, it would trump a city bus any day. (Though they still are not bigger than the blue whale, which measures up to 90 feet long.)
A recent 2022 study, a collaboration between international researchers and the University of Zurich, used a well-preserved section of a megalodon’s vertebral column to reconstruct a 3D computer model of the superpredator in all its glory.
How Fast Can a Megalodon Swim?
Their 16-meter (around 52-foot) model weighed over 60 tons. Despite its heft, the megalodon was adept in the water and could swim at a swift 1.4 meters per second.
These beasts roamed the seas since the Miocene epoch, which was about 23 million years ago, though they did not live in any specific part of the ocean.
Where Did Megalodon Live?
In their heydays, megalodons were cosmopolitan creatures, meaning they did not limit themselves to the Atlantic or the Pacific. Rather, they roamed the seas at every corner of the Earth – apart from the poles, as they preferred warm water.
Given such a sizable chunk of time exists between us and them, how might we know that megalodons were for sure real? It’s thanks to all their teeth.
How Big Is a Megalodon Tooth?
Prehistoric Megalodon Shark Tooth (left) and two Great White Shark Teeth (right) (Credit: Mark_Kostich/ Shutterstock)
Megalodon are perhaps most famous for their giant teeth. Even their name means “large tooth.” Because they were such a widely distributed species, that means fossilized megalodon teeth could be theoretically found anywhere. So far, teeth have been discovered on every continent apart from Antarctica.
How Many Teeth Did a Megaladon Have?
A megalodon’s giant jaws, containing about 276 sharp and serrated teeth, were the perfect weapons for chomping on blubbery marine mammals. One tooth was about the size of a human hand, measuring up to seven inches long. These teeth are the primary windows with which scientists can look into the lives of megalodons.
Because shark skeletons are mostly cartilaginous – meaning they’re made of the same material comprising our ears – they’re extremely hard to preserve and fossilize over time.
On the other hand, sharks go through teeth like nobody’s business in one lifetime. Researchers use these remnants to infer many aspects of their lifestyles, such as their feeding habits, preferred diet, and even body size.
What Did Megalodons Eat?
3D Illustration of megalodon shark hunting dolphins underwater (Credit: Antonio Viesa/Shutterstock)
Megalodons were so mammoth that they required over 98,000 kilocalories every day. Likewise, their stomachs were capable of holding almost 10,000 liters of content. With such behemoth jaws and bodily capacity, megalodons fed on diverse prey to meet their daily caloric and energy needs.
Evidence of Megalodon Diet
Their morsels ranged from whales to dolphins to seals. We know this now because researchers have found megalodon bite marks and even their teeth permanently embedded into whale bones.
The scientists behind the 3D reconstruction of the megalodon posit that they could have preferred eating larger prey, as it may have helped limit competition with other fellow predators who weren’t gigantic enough to tackle such big prey. With their size, megalodons could completely ingest prey as big as today’s killer whales – a modern apex predator of our seas – in a few bites.
They would have snacked on these kinds of fatty animals because their blubber was a rich and crucial source of calories. (It’s for this reason that, if in some parallel timeline, the megalodon survived to today, it would not go for us stringy humans as a first choice bite.)
Read More: Why Do Sharks Attack Humans?
When and Why Did the Megalodon Go Extinct?
Megalodon were apex predators, meaning that they themselves did not have natural predators. So how did such a powerful creature die out?
Scientists now believe the megalodon disappeared near the boundary between the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs, about 2.6 million years ago. A combination of factors likely contributed to their ultimate demise.
What Happened to the Megalodon?
For example, the megalodon’s primary prey could have declined due to the effects of global cooling. Lowering sea levels, from this cooling, would have also resulted in the loss of crucial birth grounds in shallower, coastal waters, where megalodon pups grew up.
What Killed the Megalodon?
Some researchers also suggest that competition with other predators, such as the great white shark, further strained the megalodon population.
The extinction of such a superpredator would have created cascading effects on the food webs and oceanic ecosystems at the time, as the far-traveling megalodon would have played a key role in cycling nutrients across the seas.
Is the Megalodon Still Alive?
Perhaps one of the most burning questions of all is whether the megalodon somehow survived and continues to roam the depths of unexplored waters today.
Summer blockbusters like The Meg may have you speculating. Scientists point out that we would tell if megalodons were still around by the bite marks they would leave behind on their prey – and of course, by fresh teeth hot off the press (or jaw, rather).
Additionally, it’s unlikely that megalodons would manage to retain the characteristics that make them the megalodon if they somehow found new homesin icy oceanic abysses, contrary to the premise of The Meg.
The evidence says that this giant is long gone. So, rest assured and just keep swimming.