Sharks have swum through Earth’s oceans for over 350 million years. These impressive predators have produced some massive predatory fish.
If the film Jaws, had you quaking in your shoes. Megalodons are sure to send a shiver down your spine.
Megalodons were large, prehistoric sharks that ruled the oceans. They thrived millions of years ago along the continental coastlines as the apex predators of the oceans.
What were the ancient megalodons like, and how did they go extinct?
What Were Megalodons Like?
Megalodons were around 3 times larger than modern-day great white sharks. The largest was probably around 60 feet long, weighing nearly 50 tons. That’s the same as a railroad car!
They had a mouth full of large teeth. Each tooth was approximately the same size as an adult human’s hand. Like modern-day sharks, they had multiple rows of teeth in their jaws. They could continuously shed and replace their teeth. These teeth were inside massive, powerful jaws. Their bite could generate up to 40,000 pounds of force.
Megalodons are a part of the lamnoid shark family. This includes mako, thresher, and great white sharks. Megalodons probably resembled these modern sharks in structure. Their bodies were mostly made of cartilage with streamlined shapes for better movement. Their light skeletons allowed them to stay afloat better and helped them to swim longer distances.
These large sharks likely are baleen whales, seals, sea cows, and sea turtles. Many whale fossils contain gashes likely made by Megalodons. There was even a fossilized Megalodon tooth found embedded in a whalebone.
When Did Megalodon Live?
The Megalodons were not the first sharks to roam the seas. Shark species have been found as early as the Early Devonian period, over 410 million years ago. Throughout this history, the shark has had many ebbs and flows in its evolution. Most of the largest shark species died out during the KT extinction event, alongside dinosaurs.
As there was a period of warming, sharks began to grow larger and fill the niches left by their extinct ancestors.
They lived mostly along the coastlines and continental shelves of all continents except Antarctica. They preferred to hunt in the tropical and subtropical shallows for their prey.
For 13 million years, they were the apex predator of the oceans and only became extinct 3.6 million years ago.
How Did Scientists Learn About Megalodons?
Since cartilage is hard to find fossilized, there aren’t any full specimens of Megalodon for scientists to study. Rather, scientists have had to draw most of their conclusions about Megalodons from fossils of their teeth, feces, and vertebrae.
Megalodons, like living sharks, shed thousands of teeth during their lifetime. So, these are often found on coastal beaches. Fossilized Megalodon teeth are especially common off the coast of Morocco and Australia. Most of the fossil records for Megalodons come from their teeth, but several dinner-plate-sized vertebrae have been found, as well.
Scientists used their knowledge of modern sharks to make conjectures about the habits of the Megalodon. They also use the in-depth chemical analysis of tooth deposits to figure out what these massive sharks ate and how the climate affected them. That, paired with size comparisons of tooth-to-body proportions, create their theories about how the prehistoric Megalodon lived.
Why Did Megalodons Go Extinct?
The Megalodon became extinct by the end of the Pliocene Epoch. This was a period of planetary cooling for Earth. Around a third of all large marine animals became extinct at this time. With smaller prey animals dying off, larger predators had less to eat.
Since Megalodons lived in more tropical waters, this cooling period also resulted in the loss of habitat. So, the odds were stacked against this large predator with less food and a smaller habitat, they were already set up to struggle, but they also had to deal with competition.
Contrary to popular belief, Great White sharks lived alongside these fierce predators. A study from 2022 suggests that Great Whites may have spurred the Megalodon’s extinction. Based on the analysis of both teeth, the two predators likely fed similarly. Yet, the Megalodon’s size meant that it had larger energy and feeding demands.
In the end, the combining factors meant the Megalodon could not keep up.
With their immense size, powerful jaws, and massive teeth, Megalodons were truly impressive sharks. In the end, the largest fish in the ocean couldn’t survive Earth’s changing climate and the current king of the seas’ competition.
There is still much to learn about these gigantic predators. Scientists continue to analyze teeth and other fossils from Megalodons to find out more information about these giant sharks.