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Megalodon devoured huge prey up to eight meters long

An international team of researchers led by the University of Zurich has used 3D modeling to reconstruct an individual megalodon discovered in the 1860s. The fossilized remains were well preserved, and dated back to 18 million years ago. 

The reconstructed megalodon was 16 meters long and weighed over 61 tons. It could swim an estimated 1.4 meters per second, requiring over 98,000 kilocalories a day with a stomach volume of 10,000 liters. 

The results suggest that the megalodon could travel long distances and was capable of eating prey of up to eight meters long. This is the size of a killer whale – today’s top ocean predator. The ability to eat large apex predators places megalodon at a higher trophic level than the largest modern predators.

“Shark teeth are common fossils because of their hard composition which allows them to remain well preserved,” said study first author Jack Cooper. “However, their skeletons are made of cartilage, so they rarely fossilize. The megalodon vertebral column from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences is therefore a one-of-a-kind fossil.”

The research team, which includes researchers from Switzerland, UK, USA, Australia and South Africa, measured and scanned every vertebra before reconstructing the entire column. The experts attached the column to a 3D scan of a megalodon’s dentition from the United States. The model was completed by adding “flesh” around the skeleton using a 3D-scan of the body of a great white shark.

“Weight is one of the most important traits of any animal. For extinct animals we can estimate the body mass with modern 3D digital modelling methods and then establish the relationship between mass and other biological properties such as speed and energy usage,” said study co-author John Hutchinson.

The high energetic demand would have been met by feeding on calorie-rich blubber of whales, in which megalodon bite marks have been found in the fossil record. An optimal foraging model found that eating a single 8-meter-long whale may have allowed the shark to swim thousands of miles across oceans without eating again for two months. 

“These results suggest that this giant shark was a trans-oceanic super-apex predator,” said study senior author Professor Catalina Pimiento. “The extinction of this iconic giant shark likely impacted global nutrient transport and released large cetaceans from a strong predatory pressure.”

The complete model can now be used for future reconstructions and further research. This study represents a leap in knowledge of the super predator and the ecological function that megafaunal species play in marine ecosystems – as well as the consequences of their extinction.

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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