The Real Jaws: The World’s Largest-Ever Shark Was Even Bigger and Faster Than We Thought

Few extinct aquatic animals have captured the popular imagination like the biggest shark of all time: the megalodon.

Much remains unknown about this behemoth that died out three million years ago. Scientists know more about the T-Rex, which went extinct 65 million years ago, for one simple reason: Sharks don’t have many bones.

Now, advances in 3D mapping have produced new ways of gauging the actual size and shape of the megalodon. The results? It was likely even larger, faster, and hungrier than previously thought.

megalodon tooth vs great white shark tooth

A fossilized megalodon tooth (left) vs. a great white tooth. Photo: Mark Kostich/Shutterstock

 

That’s the message from a new 3D model published in the journal Science Advances last week. In the past, estimates of the megalodon’s size varied from 10 to 18 metres.

That’s big enough to strike a mental image — about the length of a standard bowling lane. But the updated vision of this ancient super-predator makes it seem even more terrifying. The new model shows a 16m-long shark that weighed as much as 67 tonnes. And it might not have even been full grown.

To create the model, London Royal Veterinary College anatomist John Hutchinson worked with Catalina Pimiento, a paleontologist at Swansea University in Wales.

They relied on a rare megalodon spine stored in the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. Other data included megalodon teeth and a full-body scan of a great white shark — the megalodon’s closest living relative.

The study’s authors said it’s possible the megalodon could grow even larger, given that scientists have discovered fossilized vertebrae 50 percent larger than the bone this model used.

megalodon 3D model

The authors drew from multiple sources to create their 3D model of the megalodon. Credit: Science Advances

 

That means megalodons could have grown up to 19m long. That’s as big as a humpback whale but still smaller than the 23m shark depicted in the blockbuster “The Meg.”

 

An orca in five bites

In one of the study’s tastiest details, the authors said their estimates suggest the megalodon could chow down an eight-metre orca whale in just five gnashes of its massive teeth.

While certainly an intriguing proposition for The Meg sequel coming out next year, the detail reflects the growing understanding that the megalodon likely couldn’t sustain its enormous size on a diet of seal (as some fossil evidence suggests). It would need whales to survive.

The study also concluded that the megalodon’s average cruising speed was nearly five kilometres per hour, faster than any other shark. Its top speed is unknown.

The megalodon’s dietary preference for large prey like whales gave it a significant advantage. The lack of competition for this abundant energy source meant it could travel farther before feeding.

Earlier this year, scientists said the great white shark may have contributed to the megalodon’s extinction.