What is a Megalodon?

Everything you need to know about this super-sized prehistoric shark.

The Megalodon shark.

For anyone with an interest in science and paleontology, the term ‘Megalodon’ might mean something. The rest of us, however, are in probably the dark.

That’s about to change with the release of Jason Statham’s latest cinematic effort, The Meg, of course. It tells the story of a hapless crew of marine biologist types who end up encountering one of these prehistoric beasts with thrilling and bloody consequences for one and all.

Put simply, the Megalodon was a ginormous shark and one of the most lethal apex predators that ever stalked this planet’s oceans. But that’s only the half of it. Here’s everything you need to know about the megalodon and a little more besides. 

What was the Megalodon?

Megalodon was the largest shark to ever exist. Scientists estimate that the Megalodon could reach up to 54 feet long, which is three times the size of a Great White and its teeth could measure between 3 and 5 inches in height (though some examples discovered have reached 7 inches. This wasn’t just the king of the shark world though, as scientists believe it is the largest vertebrate predator to ever exist, making the T-Rex look like miniature figures in comparison.

As you can imagine, such a large creature required a sizeable meal and indeed, Megalodon’s ate other giant sea creatures including porpoises and dolphins, but its main food source was likely giant prehistoric whales. And in terms of hunting technique, it was a lot more vicious than most present-day predatory sharks who prefer to attack from below and wait until their prey bleeds out. Megalodon, however, had massive jaws and a 41,000-pound bite force; it had no issue going for the rib cage, shoulders and upper-spine and clamping down until its prey’s heart and lungs ruptured and the poor whale died from its injuries.

While there is no formal agreement of why the Megalodon died out, a 2016 research paper suggested that the emergence of smaller and agiler predators like Orcas were able to gobble up the Megalodon’s remaining food sources and as the Megalodon needed more food to survive, there wasn’t enough to go around.

The Megalodon shark comparison.

Interesting facts about The Megalodon

It won’t surprise you to know that humans were not always aware of the process of fossilisation, but of course, we have found examples of fossilised Megalodon teeth for centuries. What did our ancestors think of these specimens? Well, they often believed they were rocks that had fallen from the moon, or that they were the petrified tongues of dragons. It wasn’t until 1666 when studying Great White teeth that Nicolaus Steno realised they were sharks teeth (and discovering what fossils were).

Perhaps more bizarrely, Megalodon’s actually have something in common with trees. It’s true. By examining the growth rings in the centre, scientists are able to determine the age of a Megalodon at its death and from the colour and space between the rings; you can even determine the Megalodon’s growth rate.

We’ve mentioned Great White sharks a few times already as comparisons, but the two species actually coexisted for millions of years, though at the time the Great White was a much smaller shark than it is now. It is unlikely the two ever really competed for food (or one was a prey for the other), as Megalodon’s tended to prefer warm water temperatures in coastal areas while Great Whites and their direct ancestors preferred cooler temperatures closer to the poles. Other species that coexisted with the Megalodon include giant sea turtles and penguins.

A Megaladon tooth.

Could The Megalodon still exist today?

It is believed that Megalodon died out during the Pleistocene extinction (2.6 million years ago), but – perhaps because the idea is quite thrilling – there are those that think it is possible that some of the species has survived and is living in deep waters away from our detection. Fuel was added to the fire of this speculation in 2013 when The Discovery Channel aired a fake documentary about a scientist investigating a Megalodon that had killed four people off the coast of South Africa. Said scientist was an actor, the evidence was fabricated and the deaths didn’t happen, but many were convinced.

However, the current scientific consensus is that Megalodon is indeed extinct. Sightings of live or washed up giant sharks over the years are more likely to be Great Whites or Basking Sharks whose size had been exaggerated by eyewitnesses and given the size of The Megalodon’s preferred food, it is unlikely it would live in deep waters as ocean life tends to be smaller and more specialised at great depths. And if we have sightings and evidence of giant squids at great depths, it’s unlikely that scientists wouldn’t have spotted a ginormous shark by now.

So bad news for those who want to believe, but for the sceptics among us we don’t need a bigger boat.

A Megalodon in a wave.

THE MEG is out in UK cinemas on 10th August

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