3D modelling shows megalodon could have swallowed prey the size of killer whales whole

T. rex might have ruled the land but megalodon ruled the seas.

A recent study led by scientists at the University of Zurich looked at the eating abilities of megalodon – and the results are frightening.

Whether it be T. rex or megalodon, we’re fascinated by big, bad apex predators from prehistory – and just how big and bad they are. The largest predatory shark and biggest fish ever, megalodon ruled the seas until around three million years ago.

Its exact dimensions are unknown since the cartilage that makes up shark skeletons don’t fossilise very well. Based on the animal’s teeth – and comparing them with its modern relative, the great white shark – it’s estimated that megalodon would have been 15-18 metres long which is three to four times the size of the biggest great whites today.

A bus is about 13 metres long. A semi-trailer about 19 metres.

Despite all the odds, a megalodon discovered in the 1860s did include a sizeable portion of the animal’s fossilised spine. Researchers believe the shark died when it was about 46 years old. It was found in the ocean which covered Belgium about 18 million years ago.

So, the team of researchers went to work building a 3D model of the megalodon based on the find. Their results are published in the journal Science Advances.

Read more: Megalodon was Earth’s highest-level apex predator – ever

With researchers from Switzerland, UK, USA, Australia and South Africa, the team first measured and scanned every single vertebra, before reconstructing the entire column.

Adding the column to a scan of a megalodon jaw from the US, they completed the model by adding “flesh” around the skeleton using a 3D-scan 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,” says co-author John Hutchinson, professor at the Royal Veterinary College in the UK.

Their model provides a look at how the animal may have sized up in life.

The reconstructed megalodon was 16 metres long and weighed more than 61 tons. The researchers estimate it could swim at around 1.4 meters per second and would have required over 98,000 kilocalories every day to meet its energy demands.

With a stomach volume of almost 10,000 litres, the results suggest that the megalodon was capable of eating prey up to 8 meters long – whole!

This means that today’s top ocean predator, the killer whale, could have been eaten whole by this ancient sea monster.

Megalodon’s high demand for energy would have been met by feeding on calorie-rich whale blubber. Indeed, megalodon bite marks have previously been found in fossilised whale bones.

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Based on their model, the team found that eating a single eight-meter-long whale may have allowed the shark to swim thousands of kilometres without needing to eat again for two months.

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

The team believes their model can now be used as a basis for future reconstructions and research to better understand how megalodon lived and the role it, as a super-apex predator, played in the ecosystem millions of years ago.

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