Researchers from the Royal Veterinary College, among other international partners across Switzerland, USA, Australia and South Africa, used 3D modelling to understand more than just the size of the megalodon
An international collaborative team of researchers, including from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), has used advanced 3D modelling to discover the movement and feeding ecology of the biggest shark to have ever roamed the oceans - the megalodon (Otodus megalodon). The results from the 3D reconstruction suggest that a single adult megalodon could have eaten prey as large as a killer whale and roam the seas without more food for two months.
Until today, there has been little fossil evidence of the marine giant beyond its teeth. While scientists have previously used tooth measurements and comparisons with other shark species to determine the length of the megalodon (up to 20 meters), lack of other remains make it difficult to accurately infer how much the extinct giant could eat or how far it could swim.
Using 3D digital modelling methods, designed originally by the RVC for modelling dinosaurs, the team used scans of fossilized vertebrae found in Belgium to reconstruct the spinal column, scaling it to real size. They then recreated the skull of a megalodon using an existing 3D scan of the skull of a Great White shark which was scaled up and fitted with 3D scans of a megalodon dentition. The resulting skull was then scaled and attached to the vertebrae, producing a base model of a megalodon skeleton.
A 3D scan of the full body of a Great White shark was used to add flesh around the megalodon skeleton, producing a full 3D model of its whole body. This allowed the scientists to measure the megalodon’s surface area, volume and centre of mass. From this, they could calculate swim speed, stomach volume and daily energy requirements based on relationships seen in living sharks.
The reconstructed megadolon was 16 meters long and weighed more than 61 tons. It was also estimated that it could swim at around 1.4 meters per second, require more than 98,000 kilocalories every day and have stomach volume of almost 10,000 litres - making it capable of eating entire prey as big as eight metres - the approximate equivalent of a modern Orca. Eating this amount would have allowed the shark to swim thousands of miles across oceans without eating again for two months.
Professor John Hutchinson, Professor of Evolutionary Biomechanics and senior author of the study, said:
"Computer modelling provides us with an unprecedented ability to use exceptionally well-preserved fossils to reconstruct the entire body of extinct animals, which in turn allows estimations of biological traits from the resulting geometry.
"Models of this nature represent a leap in knowledge of extinct super predators such as megalodon and can then be used as a basis for future reconstruction and further research."
Catalina Pimiento, Professor at the University of Zurich and senior author of the study, said:
"These results suggest that this giant shark was a transoceanic super-apex predator. The extinction of this iconic giant shark likely impacted global nutrient transport and released large cetaceans from a strong predatory pressure."
Jack A. Cooper et al. The extinct shark Otodus megalodon was a transoceanic super-predator: Inferences from 3D modelling. Science advances, 17 August 2022, Doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abm9424