Megalodon: the largest shark in history

John Henrique Oct 5, 2020

Megalodon was a shark species that lived 3.6 million years ago. It is considered one of the largest and most intimidating marine predators that have ever existed.

The megalodon (Otodus megalodon) lived between the Miocene, about 23 million years ago, and the Pliocene, about 2.6 million years ago.

The human species, which emerged approximately 200,000 years ago, wasn’t around when megalodon ruled the oceans.

The name megalodon comes from the Greek words megás, which means big, and odoús, which means “tooth”. So, megalodon literally means “big tooth”.

And, in fact, its teeth could reach more than 17 centimeters (6.6 inches) in length. A tooth of this size could only belong to the largest marine predator that has ever existed.

Megalodon attacked using its jaws, which crushed the chest cavity and pierced its prey’s heart and lungs.

The megalodon had the most powerful bite of all time. In fact, its bite was three times stronger than T. Rex’s.

Check out this bite force comparison chart:

(Credit: Alan’s Factory Outlet).

How big was megalodon?

A megalodon weighed up to 100 metric tons (110 tons) and could reach an astonishing 18 meters (59 feet) in length, putting the great white shark in the shade.

Megalodon compared to today’s marine beasts.

The image above illustrates well what we mean. The shark that appears in purple, Rhincodon typus, is the whale shark, the largest fish in the world.

The whale shark can reach 15 meters (49 feet) in length. Carcharodon carcharius, the dreaded white shark, measures between 3.5 and 7 meters (11 and 23 feet). Nothing compared to the megalodon’s size.

Are megalodons still alive?

The movie The Meg, released in 2018, left people wondering: could there be animals that we thought were extinct in the depths of the ocean?

After all, the ocean covers about 70% of the Earth’s surface and extends to depths of up to 11,000 meters, of which we explored only 94%.

So how exactly do we know that the giant megalodon is really extinct? Could it be living unnoticed in the abyssal regions of the ocean?

The answer is no. Megalodon is an extinct species, as are the T. Rex and the Tasmanian tiger.

A Megalodon's tooth (right) compared to a white shark's tooth (left).
A Megalodon’s tooth (right) compared to a white shark’s tooth (left).

Scientists are quite sure that megalodons are no longer hunting in the salty waters of the oceans. And there is a good explanation for that.

The most abundant fossils of megalodon are teeth. The distinctive appearance of these teeth and where they are found help scientists reconstruct the size of the extinct shark and find out where it lived.

Sharks lose teeth throughout their lives, so finding no teeth anywhere is a good indication that the megalodons are gone.

Based on the locations where their fossilized teeth were found, they lived in tropical and subtropical waters around the globe, so it’s not like they’re restricted to small isolated intervals where a dishonest survivor could hide and possibly be forgotten.

Full scale reconstruction of a megalodon and its dental arch.
Full scale reconstruction of a megalodon and its dental arch. (Credit: Museo de la Evolución de Puebla, Mexico).

Its preference for warm waters also means that a lone shark would not hide in the cold depths of the ocean. Besides, such a large animal would hardly go unnoticed, even at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

An 18-meter-long shark would need an enormous amount of food. Such a large predator would cause huge damage to marine ecosystems, which is something that the commercial fishing industry would probably notice.

Giant marine predators also leave recognizable marks on carcass bones, and no such evidence has been found.

Where did megalodons live?

Despite having a preference for warm waters, megalodons had a cosmopolitan distribution, which means that animals of this type could be found almost anywhere in the world.

Megalodon fossils have been found in many parts of the world, including Europe, Africa, the Americas, and Australia, usually in subtropical regions.

Megalodons inhabited a wide variety of marine environments, including shallow coastal waters, coastal resurgence areas, marshy coastal lagoons, sandy coastlines, and coastal deep-water environments.

Replica of the megalodon skeleton.
Replica of the megalodon skeleton. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

When and why did megalodon become extinct?

Scientists agree that what caused megalodon to go extinct 2.6 million years ago was competition and lack of food. In other words: the megalodon starved to death.

Some researchers believe that the extinction of the megalodon started around the Middle Miocene.

This coincided with two major events: a decline in whale diversity and the emergence of a strong competitor: the great white shark.

Megalodons preferentially preyed on small or dwarf whales (such as the extinct Piscobalaena nana).

Megalodon jaw model.
Megalodon jaw model. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

Researchers found this by analyzing fossils of small species of whales and pinnipeds (family of aquatic mammals that includes seals and sea lions) that had been bitten and probably devoured by these giant predators.

Young megalodons were forced to compete with an increasing number of predators. Less food was available to a group of predators that depended on small whales to survive, and when available prey began to decline in number, the white shark did better.

But what caused the extinction of dwarf whales?

The cooling of the oceans which, in turn, was caused by an Ice Age. This changed life in coastal waters, where dwarf whales lived, causing a change in the disposition of these animals.

The extinction of the megalodon affected some species of whales, which became larger.

Megalodon and Mayan monster myths

A 2016 study by James Madison University (USA) proved that fossils of this animal had been found by humans a long time ago.

One of the best-known ancient references to megalodon is a Mayan myth called Sipak.

This ancient civilization created stories around the huge megalodon teeth they found on the seashores.

Megalodon tooth next to two white shark teeth.
Megalodon tooth next to two white shark teeth.

The Maya decorated their temples with these teeth, which they thought was of a creature called Sipak: a monster with a forked tail, serrated jaws, and a single large tooth.

According to the study, the creature was inspired by megalodons. Sarah Newman, the study’s leader, said the Maya “were combining physical evidence that they found with myths that they also [regarded as] true, and making sense of the world that way.”

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Written by John Henrique

John has a degree in IT and is the founder of Hyperaxion. He is a science enthusiast and can usually be found reading a book, stargazing, or playing video games.


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