A study recently published by scientists from the University of Bristol and Swansea University in the UK has determined the size of the most famous villain of the seas — the megalodon.
Meaning "big tooth", megalodon, or "Meg" for short, lived between 3.6 million and 23 million years ago in the warm shallow seas that covered much of Earth. Meg is both the largest shark and the largest fish that ever lived.
The study determined that the megalodon was 59 feet (18 meters) in length, and weighed 48 tons (43.5 tonnes). By comparison, great white sharks measure 20 feet (6.1 m) in length and weigh around 4,200 - 5,000 lbs. (1,905 – 2,268 kg).
Meg's head would have been 15 feet (4.65 m) long, its dorsal fin was 5.3 feet (1.62 m) tall, and its tail was 12.6 (3.85 m) long. The scientists determined that Meg would have had a bite force of over 10 tons (9 tonnes), while the great white shark's bite force is only a "puny" two tons (1.8 tonnes).
Megalodon could open its jaw 8.85 feet by 11.15 feet (2.7 m by 3.4 m), or big enough to accommodate two adult humans side-by-side.
For years scientists had thought that Meg was just a bigger version of a great white shark, but megalodon is actually from a different lineage of shark that became extinct with the passing of megalodon. In fact, megalodon and the ancestor of the great white shark may have lived alongside each other.
How do we know Meg existed?
Like all sharks, Meg's skeleton was made entirely of cartilage, like what is found in our nose and ears. Because cartilage is softer than bone, virtually no skeletons of megalodon have ever been found. In a rare case, fossilized megalodon vertebrae were found that were the size of dinner plates.
Megalodon had 276 teeth, and also like all sharks, Meg would continually produce teeth throughout its lifetime. It would lose a set of teeth every one to two weeks, which meant that Meg would go through up to 40,000 teeth during its lifetime. Its old, discarded teeth would fall onto the ocean floor.
Megalodon teeth are commonly found off the east coast of North America, at the bottom of saltwater creeks and rivers located in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida. In fact, megalodon teeth are the state fossil of North Carolina.
During the time when megalodon lived, the early and middle Miocene Epoch, seaways separated North America from South America and Europe and Asia from Africa and the Middle East. This allowed Meg to swim to the coasts of northern Europe, South America, Southern Africa, and New Zealand.
Megalodon teeth have been found on every continent except Antarctica, and they are highly prized by fossil collectors. Megalodon teeth are also found off the coast of Morocco, off parts of Australia, and near Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex, UK.
Fossilized megalodon teeth are triangular and can be colored black, off-white, dark brown, or gray, and they have serrated edges. The largest megalodon tooth ever found measures 7 inches (17.8 centimeters) in length, and that is three times longer than the teeth of a great white shark.
Megalodon teeth differ from those of great white sharks in that their serrations occur in regular intervals and they have a bourlette, which is a darker, chevron-shaped area near the root. Megalodon produced their offspring live, and raised them in shallow warm-water nurseries.
What did Meg eat?
Megalodon was the apex predator in the ancient world's oceans. Its prey were fish, baleen whales, toothed whales, dolphins and killer whales, and pinnipeds which include seals, walruses, and sea lions.
Fossilized whale skeletons have been found that show cut marks caused by megalodon teeth, and the tips of megalodon teeth have been found embedded in whale bones. It was this diet of warm-blooded mammals that may have done megalodon in around 3.6 million years ago. That's when the Earth's temperature started dropping, and a drop in ocean temperatures caused a significant loss of habitat for Meg.
Worst of all, the warm-blooded mammals were able to move into cooler ocean areas where megalodon couldn't follow.
Could Meg still exist?
A 2014 study determined that megalodon doesn't appear in the fossil record after 2.6 million years ago. That's probably a good thing since the earliest Homo sapiens began appearing around 2.5 million years ago.
If you're hoping that Meg is still hiding undiscovered in some body of water, the same study determined that there is only a 1% chance that Meg could still be alive.
Megalodon is a popular villain in films, video games, and novels. Several films are about megalodon, including 2018's The Meg starring Jason Statham, and 2002's Shark Attack 3: Megalodon.
Meg appears in the 2017 video game Ark: Survival Evolved, and in Steve Alten's books including Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror and The Trench. In August 2013, the Discovery Channel began its annual Shark Week series with Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, a pseudo-documentary which presented alleged evidence that megalodon was still alive.
After being heavily criticized, the Discovery Channel doubled down the next year with the release of two other pseudo-documentaries The Monster Shark Lives and Megalodon: The New Evidence.
If Steven Spielberg's 1975 blockbuster film Jaws, which was based on a true story about a great white shark, didn't scare you, check out the photo above again that shows the size of a great white's teeth against the size of a megalodon's tooth. I bet you're scared now.