Basking sharks once roamed the seas, feasting on huge meals

NEW YORK (AP) — Today’s sharks have nothing on their old cousins. A giant shark that roamed the oceans millions of years ago could have devoured an orca-sized creature in just five bites, new research suggests.

For their study, published Wednesday, researchers used fossil evidence to create a 3-D model of the megalodon — one of the largest predatory fish of all time — and find clues about its life.

At about 16 meters from nose to tail, the megalodon was bigger than a school bus, according to the study in the journal Science Advances. That’s about two to three times the size of today’s great white shark. The megalodon’s gaping jaw allowed it to feed on other large creatures. Once it filled its massive stomach, it could roam the oceans for months, the researchers suggest.

The megalodon was also a strong swimmer: Its average cruising speed today was faster than sharks, and it could have easily migrated across multiple oceans, they calculated.

“It would be a superpredator just dominating its ecosystem,” said study co-author John Hutchinson, who studies animal movement evolution at the Royal Veterinary College in England. “There’s nothing that really fits.”

It was difficult for scientists to get a clear picture of the megalodon, said study author Catalina Pimiento, a paleobiologist at the University of Zurich and the University of Swansea in Wales.

The skeleton is made of soft cartilage that doesn’t fossilize well, Pimiento said. So the scientists used the few fossils available, including a rare collection of vertebrae that have been in a Belgian museum since the 1860s.

Researchers also brought in a jaw of megalodon teeth, each the size of a human fist, Hutchinson said. Scans of modern great white sharks helped portray the rest.

Based on their digital creation, researchers calculated that the megalodon would have weighed about 70 tons, or as many as 10 elephants.

Even other high-level predators may have been luncheon meat for the megalodon, which could open its jaw to nearly 6 feet (2 meters) wide, Pimiento said.

Megalodons lived an estimated 23 million to 2.6 million years ago.

Because megalodon fossils are rare, these types of models require a “jump of the imagination,” said Michael Gottfried, a paleontologist at Michigan State University who was not involved in the study. But he said the study’s findings are reasonable based on what is known about the giant shark.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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