Home Science Megalodon may have been longer than we thought, claims new study

Megalodon may have been longer than we thought, claims new study

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Megalodon may have been longer than we thought, claims new study

Most of us picture the megalodon as a Jason-Statham-hunting monster that looked like a giant great white shark, but that probably wasn’t the case. A new study re-examines fossil evidence and suggests the creature was longer and more slender than we thought.

The idea of a gigantic shark patrolling the seas millions of years ago is terrifying – so of course, we all love imagining what it looked like. Since the great white shark is one of the great movie villains of our time, pop culture has just scaled that up to submarine-ramming proportions.

Some scientists also believe that’s more or less what it looked like. Like sharks, megalodon had skeletons mostly made of cartilage, so we don’t have many fossil remains to go on besides ominous piles of huge, sharp teeth and a few vertebrae. That means scientists are left to estimate its size and shape based on comparisons to living sharks, and the great white is a common go-to. But a new study challenges that image, based on analysis of a fossilized megalodon vertebral column found in Belgium.

“The mismatch between the stocky build of Otodus megalodon in published palaeoartistic reconstructions and the surprisingly small diameter of the largest known vertebral centra of this species has bothered me for a long time,” said Dr. Mikael Siversson, co-author of the study. “The species had in fact an unusually slender vertebral column, which is at odds with previous reconstructions depicting megalodon as a girthy shark.”

Illustrations of the megalodon’s former and revised body shape and size

WA Museum

The team says that not only is the backbone slimmer than might be expected, but it’s longer too. The researchers used measurements from previous studies that calculated a relationship between biggest vertebra and total body length in 16 great white sharks. Then, they measured the biggest vertebra from the megalodon spine, and estimated the animal’s total length if it had great white proportions. That predicted this particular megalodon would have been 9.2 m (30.2 ft) long.

But there’s a problem – the actual megalodon spinal column is itself 11.1 m (36.4 ft) long, and even that’s probably incomplete. The team says this indicates the ancient shark didn’t have the same proportions as a great white, and would have been longer and slimmer. In fact, even the upper estimates of 20 m (65.6 ft) are probably selling it short, they claim.

The paper also goes deep into detail picking apart the methods and assumptions of previous studies, but the short version of the story is, the megalodon probably didn’t look like a giant great white shark. What it did look like though is still anybody’s guess.

“Although we have a very good idea about the size of the mouth from associated dentitions seemingly including all tooth positions, other anatomical features such as the shape of the fins and tail are unknown,” said Dr Siversson. “Going forward, any meaningful discussion on the anatomy of this shark other than the size and robustness of the jaws would require the discovery of more-or-less complete skeletons.”

The research was published in the journal Palaeontologia Electronica.

Source: Western Australian Museum

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