The megalodon, a colossal predator of yore, has long captivated human imagination with its immense proportions and fearsome reputation. But was this ancient apex predator merely an enlarged version of the great white shark, and does it still inhabit the hidden abysses of the ocean depths?
How Enormous was the Megalodon?
With its origins tracing back 20 million years in the past, the megalodon (previously referred to as Carcharodon or Carcharocles megalodon, now Otodus megalodon) reigned supreme in the seas for a remarkable 13 million years, until its eventual extinction around 3.6 million years ago.
Notably, the megalodon held the title not just for the largest shark but also as one of the largest fish to have ever existed on Earth.
The image of the megalodon took center stage in the 2018 film “The Meg,” magnifying its mystique. In reality, however, these creatures were slightly smaller than the fictional 23-meter behemoth depicted in the movie.
Reputed estimates suggest that the megalodon could reach lengths of 15 to 18 meters, tripling the dimensions of the largest documented great white shark. This would place it in the league of the most massive modern-day whale sharks, the largest of which attains a length of 18.8 meters.
Unveiling Size Through Fossil Teeth
Given the absence of a complete megalodon skeleton, its proportions are predominantly inferred from the size of its teeth. These teeth, capable of reaching lengths of 18 centimeters, essentially lend the species its name, “megalodon,” translating to “big tooth.” These dental remains also provide insights into the creature’s dietary habits.
Recent research in 2022 has proposed that the megalodon’s size might have been influenced by its habitat, suggesting that individuals living in colder waters might have grown to larger sizes.
Dietary Preferences of the Megalodon
Armed with its sizeable, serrated teeth, the megalodon likely had a carnivorous appetite, primarily targeting prey such as whales, sizable fish, and perhaps even other sharks. Such dimensions necessitated a substantial intake of food, compelling the megalodon to pursue substantial prey.
The menu could have encompassed creatures as diminutive as dolphins and as immense as humpback whales.
Echoes of the megalodon’s feeding patterns are evident through fossilized whale bones bearing impressions of megalodon teeth, some even embedding tooth fragments from ancient feeding frenzies that transpired millions of years ago.
Jaws of Titanic Proportions
Adapting to hunt prey on the scale of whales required the megalodon to possess an expansive gape. Estimates place its jaws at dimensions of 2.7 by 3.4 meters – an opening substantial enough to accommodate two adults lying side by side.
The mighty jaws housed a total of 276 teeth, and research reconstructing the species’ bite force intimates that the megalodon was among the most potent predators in Earth’s history.
A human bite exerts roughly 1,317 Newtons (N) of force, while a great white shark’s bite registers around 18,216 N. The megalodon’s bite, according to estimates, could have ranged from 108,514 to 182,201 N.
Unraveling the Megalodon’s Appearance
Numerous reconstructions have likened the megalodon’s appearance to a colossal great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), an assumption now deemed incorrect.
Recent insights propose that the megalodon sported a notably shorter rostrum or snout compared to the great white shark, featuring a more flattened, almost depressed mandible. Its attributes also encompassed elongated pectoral fins akin to those found in blue sharks, enabling support for its bulk.
Traditionally resembling an enlarged version of the great white shark, this depiction stemmed from an earlier belief in their relatedness. Contemporary understanding, however, establishes that the megalodon sprang from a divergent lineage of sharks, with it being the ultimate representative of this lineage.
The evolutionary trail of the megalodon stretches back over 100 million years, starting with its ancient ancestor Cretalamna appendiculata, dated at 105 million years old.
Diverse Habitats of the Megalodon
The megalodon’s ecological niche spanned the balmy tropical and subtropical waters across the globe. Its presence has left behind a trail of megalodon teeth across every continent, save for Antarctica.
Abundant findings of these teeth grace the eastern shores of North America, nestled in the seafloor of saltwater creeks and rivers within North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida. This pattern arises from a combination of rock age and accessibility for divers.
These formidable fossils also grace the coasts of Morocco and select areas in Australia, while even the UK’s shores near Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex, house rare, albeit suboptimal specimens.
Treasures in Teeth: Rarity of Megalodon Fossils
The majority of megalodon fossils are, remarkably, teeth.
Sharks continuously regrow teeth throughout their lifespans, shedding a set every one to two weeks. Over a lifetime, a shark can grow up to 40,000 teeth. This biological dynamic increases the chances of teeth fossilizing, as these hard remnants fall to the ocean floor.
Contrasting with the mineralized bones in our skeletons, shark skeletons consist of cartilage, akin to our nose and ears. Consequently, the teeth, being the most resilient structures, are more prone to fossilization.
Interestingly, fossilized megalodon vertebrae of dinner-plate dimensions have also emerged, and an extraordinary discovery in Peru reveals a fossil containing the skull, all teeth intact, and a few vertebrae.
The Megalodon’s Extinction Enigma
The megalodon’s demise aligns with the conclusion of the Pliocene, approximately 2.6 million years ago, coinciding with global cooling. The precise time of the last megalodon’s existence remains elusive, with emerging data indicating it persisted at least until 3.6 million years ago.
As temperatures plummeted, approximately a third of major marine species succumbed, including 43% of turtles and 35% of seabirds. Diminished base-level organisms precipitated a ripple effect, impacting predators atop the food chain.
The planetary cooling potentially catalyzed the megalodon’s extinction through multiple avenues. With the species relying on tropical waters, the drop in oceanic temperatures could have entailed a considerable loss of habitat. Furthermore, shifts in prey distribution, likely triggered by temperature changes, could have exacerbated the megalodon’s predicament.
The megalodon’s reproduction possibly transpired in shallow, coastal waters serving as nurseries. The advancing ice at the poles and diminishing sea levels could have obliterated these safe havens for newborns.
A 2022 study even suggests that competition with great white sharks for sustenance could have exacerbated the megalodon’s decline, as fossilized teeth reveal overlapping dietary preferences.
An Age-old Query: Megalodon’s Contemporary Existence
Incontrovertibly, the megalodon does not inhabit the unfathomable ocean depths, notwithstanding past claims from sources like the Discovery Channel.
If a megalodon of such magnitude were extant, its presence would manifest through bite marks on large marine creatures and the continuous accumulation of its massive teeth on the ocean floor. Furthermore, as a warm-water species, the megalodon would struggle to endure the frigid deep waters, diminishing its likelihood of remaining concealed.