Megalodon tooth

You may have seen the Hollywood version of Otodus megalodonfeatured recently as the on-screen nemesis of sea diver Jonas Taylor (played by Jason Statham) in Meg. It turns out that this massive 70-foot image of a prehistoric carnivore isn’t much of an exaggeration. Scientists have already named the missing O. megalodon “transoceanic superpredator” based on insights provided by a 3D model of the truly massive shark.

Whales for dinner

The computer model rendering stretched as much as 16 meters. That’s almost three times the length of a great white shark. Scientists believe the shark is extinct 3.6 million years ago in the early Pliocene—may have grown even larger, reaching up to 20 meters (approximately 65 feet). Additionally, the 3D meg weighs a whopping 61.5 metric tons (more than 135,000 pounds). It may also have fed on whales.

“We learned that with a cruising speed of 1.4 meters per second, megalodon could, if imagined, easily cross the entire ocean within a few months,” says Jack Cooper, a palaeobiologist at Swansea University who was part of the international team , created the model. Megalodon’s cruising speed also meant it swam faster than any shark in existence today, the study noted. To accomplish this feat, he had to consume over 98,000 calories a day.

“It could have very easily met that demand by consuming whales,” says Cooper. Based on the size of the mega shark’s stomach, it could swallow a modern orca and other small or medium-sized cetaceans in just five mouthfuls. “He would use that energy to fuel this long-distance travel.”

Cooper and his team used teeth, a fossilized spine and scans of a great white shark to digitally recreate the megalodon. Traces of Megalodon are hard to find because the cartilage doesn’t fossilize well, he explained. Estimates of its size are based primarily on the size of teeth or bite marks found on marine fossils from the same period.

Fortunately, an “exceptionally well-preserved fossil” discovered in 1860 in Belgium provided the team with what they needed. These findings led Cooper and his team to call the megalodon a “transoceanic superpredator” in a paper published this August in the journal Scientific progress.

Until recently, few experts doubted that the megalodon crossed the oceans in search of food, says Nick Payenson, curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. But the new model adds even more evidence. “It’s really nice to see a comprehensive study of the palaeobiology of this species.” Because a lot of ink has been spilled about different aspects of how big Megalodon was … and the different parts of its anatomy that we still don’t have a clear picture of.’

Creating a 3D model of an extinct super carnivore is certainly fascinating in its own right, but Cooper also stressed that it has implications for the apex predators roaming the oceans today, especially in the midst of sixth mass extinction.

Read more: Earth is on the brink of the sixth mass extinction. Here’s what paleontologists want you to know

“By studying megalodon and its role in the food web, and then more broadly what happened to food webs after megalodon went extinct, you can get a pretty good idea of ​​what effects you might see if we lost today’s tip sharks,” said Cooper.

A role in the ocean

During its transoceanic journeys, the megalodon would have played a key role in the distribution of nutrients in the oceans, the study notes. Appearing in the fossil record about 20 million years ago, it ruled the oceans for about 13 million years. Possible explanations for the extinction of megalodon include competition with other smaller sharkshabitat loss due to sea level fluctuations and prey reduction.

Cooper’s report argues that while megalodon may have traveled faster than other sharks, its maximum burst speed may have been slower due to its clumsy size, potentially allowing smaller sharks to compete with the giant for food.

Its extinction probably led to impacts on marine ecosystems, Cooper says, through trophic cascades. The extinction of an apex predator such as megalodon may have shifted the balance, freeing prey populations from hunting pressure over time. “This is something that we see in the fossil record, we see whales actually starting to get bigger,” he adds.

“By understanding the processes that followed the extinction back then with species like megalodon, it can give us an idea of ​​what to expect and what to expect today,” says Cooper.

Pienson agreed, highlighting this research shows current C02 levels have already reached those of the Pliocene. “Future oceans will look like the oceans of the recent past,” Payenson said. “So understanding what happened in the Miocene and Pliocene oceans will be instructive about potential future states that we may see or our descendants may see.”

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