The Meg was larger and faster than previously thought… and could eat a killer whale in five bites

·3 min read
Megalodon - J. J. Giraldo via AP
Megalodon - J. J. Giraldo via AP

The megalodon, the biggest shark to ever live, was even larger and faster than previously thought, scientists have found.

The shark, which ruled the ocean for 20 million years, was able to grow larger than a humpback whale, at up to 65 feet and almost 70 tons, according to research led by the Royal Veterinary College.

The Meg’s skeleton was made mostly of cartilage, which does not fossilise easily, so there are very few remnants of the predators for scientists to study. For this reason, scientists have long been unsure of the creature’s exact size.

Previous attempts to gauge the animal’s scale have relied largely on teeth, but a new study has used state-of-the-art technology to provide a more accurate estimate that shows the Meg to be even more fearsome than was previously thought.

Fossilised vertebrae kept in a Belgian museum, teeth relics, comparisons to the great white - the most similar living creature to the Meg - and skull reconstructions found the Belgian specimen was 52 feet long and 67 tons in weight, roughly the same size as a whale shark.

Previous attempts to judge how long this individual was had produced figures of 30 feet, and the new weight estimation is 23 per cent more than thought.

Megalodon tooth - Jeff Rotman / Alamy Stock Photo
Megalodon tooth - Jeff Rotman / Alamy Stock Photo

However, the team added that the other megalodons could have been up to 65 feet long.

This maximum size matches up with previous claims that the megalodon’s head was 15 feet long.

The detailed digital reconstruction of the animal’s anatomy shows it could cruise through the water at about 3mph, possibly up to as fast as 9mph, which is quicker than any modern shark.

“O. megalodon was able to cruise faster than all living species considered, including the salmon shark, porbeagle shark and great white shark,” the researchers write in their paper, published in Science Advances.

The megalodon likely had to eat almost 100,000 calories a day, 20 times more than a great white needs.

Whale blubber, they say, would be a perfect choice as one kilogram contains 6,667 calories.

Another dietary choice, if the Meg was prepared to turn cannibal, would be sharks, as their liver has 8,150 calories per kilogram.

‘A transoceanic super-apex predator’

The 52-foot-long Meg studied in Belgium had a stomach capacity of 9,605 litres and could eat an entire 26-foot-long creature, like an adult killer whale, in just five bites.

“These results suggest that this giant shark was a transoceanic super-apex predator,” Prof Catalina Pimiento, professor at the University of Zurich and senior author of the study, said.

“The extinction of this iconic giant shark likely impacted global nutrient transport and released large cetaceans from a strong predatory pressure.”

“Our conservative estimates and cautious interpretations suggest that O. megalodon was likely able to swim great distances and to feed on prey as large as modern apex predators, implying an ecological function as a transoceanic superpredator,” the team add in their paper.

“A potential preference for large prey would have allowed adult individuals not only to obtain enough calories to undertake prolonged migrations, much like its modern ecological analogs, but also to exploit less competitive niches.”