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Megalodon's true appearance remains a mystery

A surprising new study from UC Riverside has revealed that we still don’t know what the body of Megalodon actually looked like. Despite its notoriety as one of the largest and most fearsome sharks that ever lived, it turns out that much about Megalodon’s appearance remains a mystery.

“The study may appear to be a step backward in science, but the continued mystery makes paleontology, the study of prehistoric life, a fascinating and exciting scientific field,” said Professor Kenshu Shimada of DePaul University. 

Otodus megalodon is one of the most infamous ocean predators in history, mainly because of its enormous size. Based on fossilized teeth and vertebrae, scientists believe that the ancient sharks reached lengths of up to 65 feet. They existed on Earth roughly 23 to 3.6 million years ago.

“The cartilage in shark bodies doesn’t preserve well, so there are currently no scientific means to support or refute previous studies on O. megalodon body forms,” said study lead author Phillip Sternes.

With a lack of evidence available, scientists have traditionally modeled Megalodon bodies based on those of modern great white sharks. Great whites are partially warm blooded, and it is believed that Megalodons were as well. 

Previously, it was assumed that having some warm blood is an advantage because it could expand sharks’ swimming range, since this would make them less dependent on water temperature. However, it is now believed that partial warm-bloodedness is an advantage because it can increase swimming speed.

“Great whites are among the fastest swimming sharks, so Megalodons were likely also big, fast sharks you would not want to run into in the open ocean,” said Sternes. 

The researchers set out to investigate whether a two-dimensional geometric shape analysis could actually distinguish between the body forms of modern warm-blooded species and cold-blooded species within the shark order called Lamniformes, which also includes Otodus megalodon. The results of the study suggest that, when using a two-dimensional analysis, there is no relationship between thermophysiology and body form in Lamniformes.. 

“Although it is still possible that O. megalodon could have resembled the modern great white shark or lamnids, our results suggest that the two-dimensional approach does not necessarily decisively allow the body form reconstruction for O. megalodon,” said study co-author Jake Wood.

“Warm bloodedness does not make you a differently shaped shark,” said Sternes. “I encourage others to explore ideas about its body shape, and to search for the ultimate treasure of a preserved Megalodon fossil. Meanwhile, this result clears up some confusion about previous findings and opens the door to other ideas once again.”  

“This new study shows that there are currently no scientific means to support or refute the accuracy of any of the previously published body forms of O. megalodon.”

The study is published in the journal Historical Biology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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