August 24, 2022

Yesterday’s NY Times reported the megalodon may have been larger and fiercer than previously thought.  A new study shows the megalodon was so big it could devour a 16 foot (5 m) killer whale and was the fastest cruising shark to ever swim the oceans.  The finds were revealed through a new 3D model of the extinct shark, based on data collected from fossilized teeth and vertebrae.  This has given scientists the best look yet at the size, speed, and diet of this “superpredator.”  In the new study, researchers combined measurements from an exceptionally well-preserved vertebral column uncovered in Belgium and a set of teeth found in the U.S. to create a rough blueprint of the megalodon’s skeleton.  The team then used body scans of a great white shark to fill in the gaps and estimate the amount of soft tissue that surrounded the megalodon’s bones.  The scientists then combined these data to create a digitally reconstructed 3D model.  Based on the model, “we estimate that an adult O. megalodon could cruise at faster absolute speeds than any shark species today and fully consume prey the size of modern apex predators,” the researchers wrote in the journal Science Advances published on August 17th. 

When I looked online, I found the Megalodon (Otodus megalodon), meaning “big tooth”, is an extinct species of mackerel shark that lived 23 to 3.6 million years ago, or from the Early Miocene to the Pliocene epochs.  The megalodon was originally identified as a relative of the modern great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) but is now classified in the extinct family Otodontidae which diverged from the great white during the Early Cretaceous.  While regarded as one of the largest predators to ever live, the megalodon is only known from fragmentary remains.  Scientists differ on whether it would more closely resemble a stockier version of the great white shark, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), the basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus), or the sand tiger shark (Carcharias taurus).  A recent estimate suggests a maximum length of 66 feet (20 m), although the average length is estimated at 34 feet (10.5 m).  Using the vertebral column and reconstructing a 3D model suggest a 52 foot (16 m) long individual may have reached more than 67.8 tons (61.5 metric tons).  The teeth were thick and robust, built for grabbing prey and breaking bone, and their large jaws could exert a bite force of 24,400 to 41,000 foot pounds (108,500 to 182,200 newtons).  You would not want to be swimming in their water.

Fossil records indicate the megalodon had a diverse distribution and probably targeted large prey.  Juveniles inhabited warm coastal waters and fed on fish and small whales.  While the great white attacks prey from the soft underside, megalodon probably used its strong jaws to attack the chest cavity and puncture the heart and lungs of its prey.  Since the megalodon preferred warmer waters, it is thought ocean cooling and lower sea levels from the ice ages may have resulted in the loss of suitable nursery areas contributing to its decline.  A reduction in the diversity of whales and a shift in their distribution toward polar regions may have also reduced megalodon’s primary food source.  If the megalodon’s stomach was a similar proportion to those of living apex sharks, researchers think the belly could have had a volume around 2,537 gallons (9,605 liters), an equivalent to 60 bathtubs.  The megalodon seems even more ferocious than recent movies indicate.

THOUGHTS:  Critics discredited Jurassic Park (1994) for the depicting the velociraptors (Velociraptor mongoliensis) hunting in packs as the main protagonists (not the larger T. Rex).  The Velociraptor is from Mongolia and appear to have been slow-witted and solitary, covered in feathers, and about the size of a chicken.  Others vindicated the film saying the Utahraptor (Utahraptor ostrommays) found near Moab, Utah, in 1975 may have looked and acted like the movie versions.  The “fossil record” depends on bones being preserved (fossilized) and found.  This is complicated for aquatic animals like the megalodon (and modern sharks) as they were chordates (cartilaginous) rather than bone.  That is why most remains have been skulls or teeth.  Chance discoveries still provide insights to our amazing world.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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