There is no doubt about it: Megalodon (Otodus megalodon) was a large shark. But the size of this super predator has remained a matter of contention among scientists. Why? Well, previous estimates of the size of this extinct shark were based on fragmented remains that we have. Shark skeletons are made entirely of cartilage, a flexible but tough tissue that is not known to fossilize well. That’s why researchers rarely find intact specimens of ancient sharks, relying instead on scales and teeth to shed light on sharks of the past.
Although many don’t see the scientific merit in uncovering the secrets of our ancient oceans, the past can tell us a lot about our modern oceans and what the future might look like. Sharks are one of the only animals to have survived the many transitions our seas have undergone, with the megalodon once the “top predator” of our planet’s aquatic ecosystem. Now the star of many summer blockbusters, these behemoths roamed our oceans around 23 to 2.6 million years ago. With fossilized teeth discovered on every continent except Antarctica (some measuring 18 centimeters long), there are many theories regarding their disappearance. From a changing climate to being overtaken, there are many mysteries surrounding this shark.
Including its size. And size really matters here, as it allows scientists to determine what role they played when they ruled our oceans. What kind of animals did they kill and eat? How many animals did they have to kill and eat to survive? What was the possible hunting strategy of this globe-trotting super-predator?
While it has recently been speculated that megalodons may be more focused on eating seals, dolphins and small whales 6.5 to 22.9 feet (2 to 7 meters) in length, a new article reiterates what many of us knew in our gut: a big shark prefers a big meal. The team, led by scientist Jack A. Cooper, based their estimates on a 3D model of the most complete Megalodon specimen currently known. Represented by a largely intact spine housed in a Belgian museum, the team quantified the total length, weight and size of its predator’s mouth from this comprehensive digital model. They also estimated the individual’s cruising speed, stomach volume, daily energy needs, and the speed at which it was likely encountering prey.
By gathering all the data and analyzing it, the researchers concluded that this particular specimen of Megalodon was probably about 52.4 feet (16 m) long and weighed more than 61 metric tons. “This is considerably higher than recent estimates of just 48 metric tons,” the team argued. “Based on other isolated fossil vertebrae, it is likely that the largest megalodon reached 20 meters in length. We further determined that the maximum aperture of the Belgian specimen was about 5.9 feet (1. 8 m) and that his stomach could have contained 9.5 cubic meters of food.
To put this into perspective, this means that if this Megalodon were here today, it would devour an orc (Orcinus orc) in five bites. The results of their energy analysis suggest that after eating a large killer whale for breakfast, this megalodon could have traveled about 4,350 miles (7,000 kilometers) before needing to feed again. “He could have swallowed a big great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) together,” one of the researchers joked. “Hypothetically, it could have eaten another iconic super-predator, the tyrannosaurus rexin just three bites!
The new analysis also showed that these predators could easily cruise at over 3.1 mi (5 km) per hour, shocking the team as this beats all current living sharks. “This predator could travel great distances in a short time, increasing prey encounter rates and allowing it to move quickly to take advantage of seasonal changes in prey abundance,” concludes researcher and co-author Stephen Wroe.
In short? Megalodon really was all that… and more!