The reconstructed megalodon (Otodus megalodon) was 16 meters long and weighed over 61 tons. It has been estimated that he swam at about 1.4 meters per second, consumed over 98,000 kilocalories per day, and had a stomach of almost 10,000 liters. These results show that the megalodon could travel vast distances and was capable of eating whole prey up to 8 meters long. It is noteworthy that modern killer whales, the main predators of the ocean, have this size. The ability to eat large predators of comparable size millions of years ago places megalodon at a higher trophic level than modern predators.
These are the results of an international study published in the journal Science Advances and conducted in collaboration with the University of Zurich. The study was only made possible by 3D modeling of a single megalodon discovered in the 1860s. Despite this, most of its vertebral column remained in the fossil record after the creature died in the Miocene oceans of Belgium at the age of 46, about 18 million years ago.
“Shark teeth are common fossils because of their hard composition, which allows them to be well preserved. However, their skeletons are made of cartilage, so they are rarely fossilized. Thus, the megalodon spine from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences is the only fossil of its kind.” says first author Jack Cooper, a PhD student at Swansea University.
The research team, which includes scientists from Switzerland, the UK, the US, Australia and South Africa, first measured and scanned each vertebra and then reconstructed the entire spinal column. The column was then attached to a 3D scanned megalodon tooth from the US. They completed the model by adding “flesh” around the skeleton using a 3D scan of the body of a great white shark from South Africa.
“Weight is one of the most important characteristics of any animal. For extinct animals, we can estimate body mass using modern 3D digital modeling techniques and then establish relationships between mass and other biological properties such as speed and energy expenditure,” said co-author John Hutchinson, professor at the Royal Veterinary College in the UK.
The high energy requirement had to be met by eating high-calorie whale oil, on which megalodon bite marks had previously been found in the annals of fossils. An optimal foraging model for potential megalodon encounters showed that eating a single 8-meter whale could allow the shark to travel thousands of miles across the oceans without re-feeding for two months.
The complete model can now be used as a basis for future reconstructions and further research. The new biological results from this study represent a leap forward in the knowledge of this unique super-predator and help to better understand the ecological function that megafauna play in marine ecosystems and the wide-ranging consequences of its extinction.