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Top 10 Interesting Facts About Megalodon

Big Tooth

A reconstruction of the largest set of Shark teeth that has ever existed.

A reconstruction of the largest set of Shark teeth that has ever existed.

Whenever you think of a prehistoric animal in popular culture, the first names that spring to mind are Dinosaurs names, names such as Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops and Velociraptor etc. Then after that, you may think of the cast of Ice Age, creatures like the Woolly Mammoth and Sabre-toothed Cat, often inaccurately called a Sabre-toothed Tiger. But Megalodon, until fairly recently was virtually unknown. This is despite the fact that the giant shark was first named and described way back in 1843. The earliest signs of change came in the 1970’s with the release of the Jaws movies, which brought the notion of the ‘killer shark’ to the wider public imagination

The 1990’s saw interest surge in Megalodon even more with the advent of the Internet and greater and easier access to wealth of information. People suddenly saw the giant shark appear in everything from written fiction, B movies, to Discovery Channel documentaries. Its sheer size, the easy to pronounce name and familiarity to us a shark, made it both monstrous and recognizable to us as humans, which served to enhance its appeal and popularity.

However, apart from the name and the size, most writers and producers steer clear of presenting clear and accurate information. Instead, they rely on the dramatic, often depicting Megalodon as a hunter of Dinosaurs, which I can assure you it certainly wasn’t. Additionally certain documentaries are often guilty of presenting fake evidence in the form of CGI footage and the testimonies of actors pretending to be scientists. It’s always worth taking such things with a large grain of salt and remembering that it is all fictional.

The Latest Megalodon Blockbuster

9. Scientists Are Still Unsure About Megalodon Classification

In 1843, famed Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz described Megalodon teeth for the first time, and on account of their resemblance to the Great White Shark’s teeth placed it firmly within the genus Carcharodon (the same as the Great White Shark), giving it the full scientific name Carcharodon megalodon. As a result of this early classification, Megalodon has, and is still considered to be a cousin of the Great White, or even its ancestor.

However, in modern times a few issues with this original classification have arisen. Firstly, it is now known that Megalodon and the Great White actually existed at the same time, and in fact shared the world’s oceans for many millions of years. Consequently, an alternate theory has emerged, speculating that Megalodon and Great White Shark may have evolved separately from a common ancestor.

The common ancestor theory is intriguing, but for many, it still wasn’t enough. Closer examination of the teeth show subtle differences between Megalodon and the Great White in terms of form and curvature. These, in the eyes of some are subtle enough to suggest that Megalodon belongs to a whole other genus, Carcharocles, an extinct genus of sharks that were characterized mainly by their huge teeth, and presumably huge size. In recent times, analytical evidence and new shark discoveries seem to have demonstrated that the Great White Shark is in fact descended from Mako sharks. With no known links between Mako sharks and the prehistoric mega-toothed sharks, it seems likely that Megalodon and the Great White were not actually closely related.

8.The Most Recent Megalodon Fossils Are Only 1.8 Million Years Old

Megalodon roamed the world’s oceans for many millions of years, with the earliest fossils dating from the late Oligocene Period (27-23 million years ago) and the latest fossils dating from the early Pleistocene Period (1.8 million years ago). It was once thought however, that Megalodon may have survived into recent times. In 1959, scientists carried out tests on two Megalodon teeth originally found in 1872 and found them to be only 10,000 years ago; this gave rise to the possibility that Megalodon not only survived into recent times, but also may still exist somewhere in a remote part of the oceans.

However, the method used to test these teeth has since been proven to be unreliable. The scientists measured the level of magnesium dioxide that had built up on the fossil, giving it the original age quoted, but levels of magnesium dioxide on two fossils of the same age can vary widely, thus making it unreliable. The teeth were re-tested years later and no conclusive result could be reached, making it certain that the teeth were much older than 10,000 years old. Even the most advanced radio carbon dating techniques can only give an accurate date if a specimen is at most a few hundred years old. Any older fossils have to be dated in accordance from the bedrock that it was laid down in.

Megalodon vs Great White

A huge Megalodon tooth alongside two comparatively tiny Great White teeth.

A huge Megalodon tooth alongside two comparatively tiny Great White teeth.

7. No Complete Megalodon Skeleton Has Ever Been Found

Unfortunately it is highly unlikely that a complete Megalodon skeleton will ever be found, as like all sharks, its skeleton consisted almost entirely of cartilage, which decomposes very quickly. The only parts of the animal hard enough to be preserved are the teeth, of which many tens of thousands have been recovered and on occasion the vertebrae. Shark vertebrae, like the rest of the skeleton is cartilaginous, but has a much higher amount of ossification, meaning they’re much closer to real bone in terms of durability. Their teeth, like ours were coated in enamel, making them resistant to the ravages of decay and able to survive long enough to be fossilised.

Megalodon teeth are actually very common, and nobody knows exactly how many there are, on account of the fact that new examples are being discovered almost every day. Discoveries range from partial crowns to almost complete sets; regardless of appearance Megalodon are highly sought after, and for a prospective collector are very expensive when compared to other shark teeth.

Steno's Shark

Nicolas Steno's sketches of a Shark's head completed after he had become the first to dissect one properly.

Nicolas Steno's sketches of a Shark's head completed after he had become the first to dissect one properly.

6. Megalodon Teeth Were Once Thought To Be Dragon Tongues

Yes, believe it or not, up until the 17th century, the teeth of large sharks were thought to have once been the petrified tongues of either long dead dragons or large snakes. The notion was that the dragons lost their tips of their tongues either through natural shedding, combat or just death and consequently turned to stone. The word petrified is actually derived from Ancient Greek, meaning both ‘stone’ and ‘turned’. People were already aware that it’s possible for organic matter like wood to become ‘petrified’ and turn into stone. So, it didn’t require a huge leap of the imagination to envisage dragons losing their tongues and over time, becoming so called ‘tongue stones’. Due to their believed connection to dragons, the teeth were highly sought after, as many people believed that they could be used to cure venomous snake bites.

It wasn’t until 1667, that the true origins of the teeth became known. This was achieved through the work of the Danish naturalist Nicolas Steno, who became the first person to successfully dissect the head of a shark. Steno’s findings quickly filtered through the scientific and educational community, and later through wider society. The story of the ‘tongue stones’ was discarded and largely forgotten.

5. Megalodon Was A Global Shark

Based on fossil finds, it appears that Megalodon roamed right across the world’s oceans, likely only being absent from the far north and south, where the waters would have been far too cold for it to survive. Its absence from the polar regions, seems to suggest that Megalodon’s metabolism was much faster than a typical cold blooded animal. As a result, Megalodon would have been restricted to warmer/temperate waters, where it would have been easier for them to gain the necessary calories for them to meet the demands of their metabolism.

Whale Killer

The vertebra of a prehistoric whale that was bitten in half by Megalodon. The gash marks made by the teeth are still visible.

The vertebra of a prehistoric whale that was bitten in half by Megalodon. The gash marks made by the teeth are still visible.

4. Megalodon Was A Whale Killer

Whales are among the largest animals to have ever lived, and therefore the notion that they can or could be hunted seems rather bizarre. Of course, we did, and in some areas still do hunt them, but we have to rely on our technology and capacity to learn and strategise. The only animals that hunt the large whales today, is a fellow Cetacean, the Killer Whale or Orca. Like us though, they rely on intelligence, team work and coordination.

Back in prehistory though, the great whales lived in fear of a monstrous shark. Megalodon’s sheer size meant that whales would have made up a large part of its diet; the whales would have been the only animals large enough to satisfy Megalodon’s insatiable appetite. There is strong circumstantial evidence for this, as whales were at the most diverse and presumably numerous during the Miocene Epoch (23-5 million years ago). Many whale fossils from this time have been found with marks on them that could have only been made by the sharp tips of large shark teeth. Interestingly, many of the whale vertebrae dating from this time, have been found to carry damage from impacts on the bottom, suggesting that the animal was hit from below. Today, sharks such as the Great White attack seals in a similar way, striking from below, then wheeling away only to finish off the stunned animal with a powerful bite. It’s likely that many of the large whales Megalodon preyed upon would have been immune to such an attack due to their size, so may have been attacked by taking chunks of flesh out of the tail and fins until they were unable to swim, thus allowing Megalodon to eat at its leisure.

On The Hunt

A depiction of Megalodon hunting two Eobalaenoptera whales.

A depiction of Megalodon hunting two Eobalaenoptera whales.

3. Megalodon Was Not The Only Giant Shark

Megalodon was undoubtedly a giant of the deep, but it was by no means the only giant predatory shark. Two members of its order Carcharocles angustidens and Carcharocles chubutensis, both of which co-existed with Megalodon for a part of its reign were very large, much larger than any recorded Great White, but significantly smaller than Megalodon. Before the emergence of Megalodon, members of the shark genus Otodus, which swam the oceans of the Eocene Epoch (56 to 39 million years ago), also grew larger than any recorded modern Great White, but still well short of Megalodon. Otodus also had the added worry of sharing its underwater kingdom with the great predatory whale, Basilosaurus, a huge but rather serpentine looking creature, that to our eyes would have looked more like the Mosasaurs of the Mesozoic Era (252 to 65 million years ago).

Speaking of the Mesozoic, during the Cretaceous Period (145-65 million years ago), there lived a shark called Cretoxyrhina- the biggest shark of its day, it also was larger than any recorded Great White, but like Otodus had to share its world with larger and deadlier animals, namely the Mosasaurs.

2. Megalodon Had The Strongest Bite Ever

Megalodon was huge, and thus had a huge mouth, and comparisons to other sharks both extinct and extant have shown that its jaw closing muscles would have been truly colossal. One study demonstrated that Megalodon was capable of producing a bite force of up to 18 metric tons. The largest known Great White was only capable of producing a bite force of 1.85 metric tons. To give you some perspective, Megalodon would have been capable of crushing a small family car with just one bite.

Sizing Up

Megalodon largest estimated size (grey), Megalodon smallest estimated size (red), Whale Shark (violet), Great White Shark (green), Human (black).

Megalodon largest estimated size (grey), Megalodon smallest estimated size (red), Whale Shark (violet), Great White Shark (green), Human (black).

1. Megalodon Is The Largest Shark Ever

Despite the fact, that most paleoicthyologists (palaeontologists who specialise in fossil fish) are unsure of exactly how large Megalodon was, there can be little doubt from the evidence collected that it was largest shark ever. Scientists have determined the estimated size of Megalodon through measuring the length and ratios of the crowns and comparing them to other shark teeth. Additionally, when a complete jaw has been available to use, scientists have used the width of the gape to determine the overall size of the body. However, when doing this, different mathematical formulae have been used, which in turn have yielded highly contrasting results.

Most paleoicthyologists agree that a size of fifteen meters long was certainly attainable for Megalodon, others suggest Megalodon may have been larger, growing up to twenty meters long. Regardless of its exact size, the generally accepted mark of fifteen meters long, is still well in excess of any known shark alive or dead, making Megalodon the largest shark to have ever existed.

© 2018 James Kenny

Comments

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on September 20, 2018:

Thank you so much Ann.

Ann Carr from SW England on September 20, 2018:

Fascinating and scary stuff! You've given us a mega-huge amount of information here too. There has been quite a bit about this recently on various television programmes. It's amazing what we discover to knock back our 'known' understanding of the history of our world and its occupants.

Great article, James.

Ann

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on August 01, 2018:

Yes I can imagine that it was. You would have certainly thought twice about going for a swim.

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 01, 2018:

The monstrosity of this animal must have been amazing. The world must have been a very scary place with these giant creatures hunting huge prey.

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