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Inside The Terrifying History Of The Megalodon, The Shark That Made The T-Rex Look Tiny

Published May 15, 2023
Updated May 26, 2023

The prehistoric megalodon was the largest shark species ever, reaching almost 60 feet long — but then went extinct 3.6 million years ago.

Far beneath the surface of Earth’s oceans, there once lurked a creature so massive and frighteningly deadly that the thought of it continues to instill fear to this very day.

It was known as the megalodon, a shark measuring more than 65 feet in length and weighing over 50 tons, with 7-inch teeth and a bite strong enough to crush an automobile. These gargantuan sharks could swim up to 16.5 feet per second — more than twice the speed of a great white shark — making them the undeniable apex predators of the ancient oceans.

Despite this, the megalodon, or Carcharocles megalodon, went extinct around 2.6 million years ago — and we still don’t know why. How could one of the world’s most fearsome and deadly creatures vanish? Especially one that didn’t have any predators of its own.

There are countless theories, but nobody has been able to explain for sure why, right before the dawn of humanity, one of the ocean’s deadliest predators disappeared.

The Biggest Shark That Ever Lived

The megalodon is the largest shark ever documented, though exactly how massive the animal was varies based on the source. The more modest estimates say that the shark grew up to 60 feet, which is roughly the size of a standard bowling alley lane.

Megalodon Size

Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc./Patrick O’Neill RileyThe size of a Megalodon compared to a human.

But other sources say it was far larger and posit that the megalodon could have reached more than 80 feet, making it the length of three of London’s famous double-decker buses.

In either case, they dwarfed the sharks in our oceans today. As shark expert Peter Klimley told National Geographic, if a modern great white shark swam next to a megalodon, it would just barely match the length of the megalodon’s penis.

Megalodon Scale Sharks Humans

Matt Martyniuk/Wikimedia CommonsSize comparison of the great white shark and humans to the maximum and conservative size estimates of the megalodon.

The megalodon’s enormous weight matched its size. Adults reportedly could weigh anywhere from 66,000 pounds to more than 143,000 pounds. Yet, the megalodon’s massive size didn’t slow it down. In fact, it could easily outswim a modern great white shark, making it the most formidable aquatic predator the world has ever seen — and that’s to say nothing about its bite.

The Megalodon’s Formidable Bite

The megalodon’s teeth are the best tools researchers have to discover any information about this long-lost beast – and they are ghastly reminders of the pain that this underwater behemoth could inflict.

“Megalodon” quite literally means “big tooth,” which goes to show just how prominent its teeth were. The largest tooth fossil recovered clocked in at a whopping 6.9 inches — three times as large as the average great white’s tooth. Some reports cite a tooth measuring more than 7 inches.

Megalodon Tooth Vs. Great White

Jeff Rotman/AlamyThe megalodon tooth (right) is significantly larger than the tooth of a modern great white shark (left).

Like the great white, the megalodon’s teeth were triangular, symmetrical, and serrated, allowing them to easily tear through the flesh of their prey. Keep in mind, too, that sharks don’t have just one set of teeth — and they lose and replace teeth like a snake sheds its skin. According to researchers, sharks lose a set of teeth every one to two weeks and produce somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 teeth in a lifetime.

The megalodon’s huge teeth sat nestled inside an even more enormous jaw. Their jaws’ bite diameter was around nine feet tall by 11 feet wide — large enough to swallow two human adults standing side-by-side in a single gulp.

Great White Shark Jaw

Louie Psihoyos, CorbisDr. Jeremiah Clifford, who specializes in fossil reconstruction, holds the jaws of a large great white shark while standing in the reconstructed jaws of a megalodon.

To compare, the average human’s bite force is around 1,317 newtons. The megalodon’s bite force clocked in somewhere between 108,514 and 182,201 newtons, which was more than enough force to crush a car. And while cars may not have been around during the megalodon’s reign, its bite was more than sufficient for devouring other large marine creatures, including whales.

The Prehistoric Shark That Preyed On Whales

Many scientists believe the megalodons’ domain stretched across nearly every corner of the early oceans, as their teeth have been found on every continent except Antarctica.

The megalodon preferred warmer waters and tended to stick to shallower and temperate seas, which, fortunately for it, covered most of the Earth. But because the megalodon was such an enormous animal, the shark had to eat a ton of food a day — literally.

Geographic Distribution

Encyclopaedia BritannicaPatterns of megalodon distribution during the Miocene and Pliocene epochs were estimated using the locations of collected fossil teeth.

They preyed on large marine mammals such as whales, snacking on baleen whales or even humpbacks. But when its larger meals were scarce, the megalodon would settle for smaller animals like dolphins, seals, and even other, smaller sharks.

Death, when a megalodon attacked, did not come quickly. Some researchers say that the megalodon strategically hunted the whales it devoured by first eating their flippers or tails to make it harder for the injured animal to escape.

In its heyday, the megalodon was at the absolute top of the food chain. Scientists believe that mature, adult megalodons had no predators.

The only time they were vulnerable was when they were first born and still only about seven feet long. From time to time, large, bold sharks like hammerheads would brave an attack on a juvenile megalodon, as though attempting to cut it out of the ocean before it got too large to stop.

The Megalodon’s Mysterious Extinction

It’s hard to imagine how a killer as massive and powerful as the megalodon could ever have gone extinct. But some studies show that 2.6 million years ago ago, at the end of Pliocene epoch, the last of the megalodon died.

Nobody knows for sure how it happened — but there are theories.

Megalodon Tooth Size

Wikimedia CommonsMegalodon tooth next to a ruler for size comparison.

One theory points to cooling water temperatures as a cause for the megalodon’s demise. About three million years ago, the Central American Seaway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans closed which drastically cooled the earth’s oceans.

Some researchers believe that the megalodon was unable to adapt to the cooling waters. Their prey, however, could, and moved into those cooler waters where the megalodon could not follow.

According to the Natural History Museum of London, the cooler waters also killed off some of the megalodon’s food sources, which could have had a crippling effect on the shark. Up to a third of all large marine animals became extinct once the water cooled, and this loss was felt up and down the entire food chain.

Human Compared To Megalodon's Jaws

Heritage Auctions/Shutterstock.comWoman standing in the jaws of the megalodon.

However, recent studies have shown that the megalodon’s geographic distribution did not significantly increase during warm periods or decrease significantly during cooler periods, suggesting that there must have been other reasons contributing to their extinction.

Some scientists point to a shift in food chain dynamics as a cause of their fall.

Dana Ehret, a curator of paleobiology at the New Jersey State Museum told National Geographic that because the megalodon depended on whales as a food source, when the whales’ numbers dipped, so did the megalodon’s.

“You see a peak in whale diversity in the mid-Miocene when megalodon shows up in the fossil record and this decline in diversity in the early-middle Pliocene when meg goes extinct,” he says.

Without the large numbers of fatty whales to feed on, the megalodon’s huge size could have hurt them. “Meg might’ve gotten too big for its own good and the food resources weren’t there anymore,” Ehret says.

Plus, other predators, like great whites and killer whales, were around and competing for the diminishing whales as well. Smaller numbers of prey plus larger numbers of competition equaled big trouble for the megalodon.

Could The Megalodon Still Be Alive?

While scientists argue over the top cause for the extinction of the megalodon, they pretty well all agree on one thing: the megalodon is gone forever.

Despite what cheesy horror movies and a fabricated Discovery Channel mockumentary would have you believe, it is nearly universally believed in the scientific community that the megalodon is indeed extinct.

The Meg Movie Screenshot

Warner Bros.A scene from 2018’s ‘The Meg’

One common theory for the megalodon still existing, portrayed on the big screen in 2018’s The Meg, is that the giant predator still lurks in the depths of our unexplored oceans. On the surface, this seems like it could be a plausible theory considering a large percentage of Earth’s oceans remain unexplored.

However, most scientists believe that if the megalodon were somehow alive, we would know about it by now. The sharks would leave huge bite marks on other large marine creatures like whales and there would be new, non-fossilized teeth falling from their mouths littering the ocean floors.

As Greg Skomal, a shark researcher and the recreational fisheries program manager at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, told Smithsonian Magazine: “We’ve spent enough time fishing the world’s oceans to have a sense of what’s there and what’s not.”

Plus, if some version of the megalodon did defy all of the odds and was still alive in the ocean’s depths, it would look like a shadow of its former self. The shark would have had to have undergone some serious changes to adapt to living in such cold and dark waters.

Even if megalodons did swim in modern oceans, one scientist assures us that humans would not have to worry about becoming meals.

“They wouldn’t even think twice about eating us,” Hans Sues, the curator of vertebrate paleobiology at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, said. “Or they would think we are too small or insignificant, like hors-d’oeuvres.”

Recent Discoveries That Shed Light On Earth’s Mightiest Shark

Earth’s oceans are teeming with shark teeth — not surprising, given how many teeth sharks lose a year — but that number isn’t limited to modern day sharks. Even millions of years after they went extinct, new megalodon teeth are still being discovered each year.

In fact, on January 11, 2023, a 9-year-old Maryland girl named Molly Sampson and her sister Natalie were shark tooth hunting in the Chesapeake Bay near the Calver Cliffs, testing out the new insulated waders they had received for Christmas.

As she and her family explained to NPR, Molly waded out into the water that day with one goal in mind: she wanted to find a “meg” tooth. It had always been a dream of hers.

And that day, it came true.

“I went closer, and in my head, I was like, ‘Oh, my, that is the biggest tooth I’ve ever seen!'” she said. “I reached in and grabbed it, and dad said I was shrieking.”

Molly Sampson Shark Tooth Collection

Molly Sampson’s shark tooth collection, featuring her newly discovered megalodon tooth on the left.

When the Sampsons presented their tooth to Stephen Godfrey, the curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum, he described it as a “once-in-a-lifetime kind of find.”

And while finds like Molly’s are exciting for a litany of personal reasons, they also provide scientific value. Each new discovery provides researchers with more usable information on these mighty, ancient sharks — information that allows them to do things like create a 3D model illustrating that megalodons could eat prey the size of killer whales.

As fascinating as these ancient creatures were, perhaps we should be thankful that they don’t still lurk in Earth’s waters.

After reading about the megalodon, learn all about the Greenland Shark, the world’s longest-living vertebrate. After that, check out these 28 interesting shark facts.

Caroline Redmond
Caroline is a writer and Florida-transplant currently living in New York City.