In a new 3D modeling study published this week in Science Advances, we show that the giant extinct shark, Otodus megalodonwas a real world traveler super-predator.
It was able to travel great distances in a short time and could eat the largest of modern living super predators, the killer whale, in five gigantic bites. It could have swallowed a very great white shark.
The biggest shark that ever lived
Megalodon was the largest shark that ever lived, and it had been around for a very long time – from about 23 million to 2.6 million years ago. Its range was once vast: Its fossilized teeth have been found on every continent except Antarctica. These teeth are not difficult to spot when you come across them, they can be as long as 18 centimeters.
Why this formidable predator went extinct remains a mystery. It may have been associated with global cooling or competition from other predators such as killer whales (orcas). This is just one of many unanswered questions.
One thing we do know for sure is that the megalodon was large, but how big is still a matter of contention among scientists, as previous estimates were actually based on only fragmentary remains.
And its size really matters, because it helps us interpret its biology — the types of prey an animal can kill and eat, the amount of food it needs to survive and the speed at which it can travel.
The issue of nutrition is particularly important because it determines an animal’s role and impact on its ecosystem. Historically, many thought that megalodon took very large prey, including large whales.
But it has recently been argued that it may not be quite the super-predator it was, concluding that it concentrated on smaller prey such as seals, dolphins and small whales about two to seven meters in length. If correct, this would have major implications for our understanding of how the marine ecosystems of the time functioned.
Our new model now suggests that it actually preferred much larger prey.
Auto-crushing bite force
I have been interested in megalodon for a long time. In 2007 I published a paper with colleagues in which we built a computer simulation to predict bite force.
Our estimate — a car crushing 18 tons — depended on the animal’s presumed body mass, so I was delighted when colleagues from abroad asked me to help in an effort to develop a more accurate model of the whole shark. From there we were able to determine the size more reliably.
Previous estimates of megalodon’s body mass and proportions have largely been extrapolated on data from a few fossilized vertebrae, leaving a lot of room for error. Others were based on direct comparison to the living great white shark; however, it’s now pretty clear that the two weren’t closely related.
In our new study, we based our estimates on 3D modeling of the most complete specimen known, represented by a largely intact spine in a Belgian museum. We quantified the total length, weight and size of the opening based on the full digital model.
Finally, we estimate the megalodon’s cruising speed, the volume of its stomach, its daily energy requirement, and the speed at which it likely encountered prey.
We concluded that this particular megalodon was about 16 meters long and weighed more than 61 tons. This is significantly greater than recent estimates of just 48 tons.
A whale for breakfast
Based on other isolated fossil vertebrae, it is likely that the largest megalodon reached 20 meters in length. We further determined that the maximum gap of the Belgian specimen was about 6 feet (1.8 meters) and that its stomach could have held 9.5 cubic meters of food.
This suggests it could have completely devoured the largest of the living killer whales (about 8 meters) in just five bites.
Hypothetically, it could have eaten another iconic super predator, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, in just three bites. As for great white sharks, a megalodon may have swallowed a large whole.
Our results suggest that megalodon could have cruised comfortably at more than 5 kilometers per hour. This is much faster than the largest living fish, the filter-feeding whale shark, or even the great white shark, which cruises at about 2 miles per hour.
Spanning the ocean, this super-predator can travel great distances in a short period of time, increasing prey numbers and allowing it to move quickly to take advantage of seasonal changes in prey abundance.
Results from our analysis of the energies suggest that after eating a large killer whale for breakfast, this megalodon could have traveled about 7,000 km before needing to be fed again.
In short, our results show that megalodon really was the super predator it is, and more.
No creature, no matter its size, was safe from the jaws of this super shark. Its extinction likely caused massive cascade effects from the marine environments of the time.
New 3D model shows: Megalodon can eat prey the size of whole orcas
Jack A. Cooper et al, The extinct shark Otodus megalodon was a transoceanic superpredator: inferences from 3D modelling, scientific progress (2022). DOI: 10.1126/sciaadv.abm9424
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Quote: Ancient megalodon super-predators can swallow a whole great white shark, reveals new model (2022, Aug. 21) retrieved Aug. 21, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-08-ancient-megalodon-super-predators- swallow-great.html
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