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Basking shark Megalodon may have been slimmer than previously thought

Basking shark Megalodon may have been slimmer than previously thought
Model of the giant tooth shark (Megalodon) in the Linz Castle Museum
Image: (APA)

In the past, the great white shark was often used as a model for the megalodon’s appearance, explains a research team in the journal “Palaeontologia Electronica”. However, new analyzes showed that the ancient shark was probably not as plump and stocky as its modern relative. “Our team reexamined the documented fossil record and found that the megalodon was slimmer and possibly even longer than we thought. Therefore, a better model may be the modern mako shark,” said lead author Phillip Sternes of the University of California, Riverside. “It would still be a formidable predator at the top of the previous food chain, but it would have behaved differently because of this new understanding of its body.”

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So far mainly huge teeth and some vertebrae have been discovered

The megalodon became known, among other things, through the science fiction films “Meg” and “Meg 2: The Deep”, in which the basking sharks swim out of the depths of the oceans. The real megalodon (Otodus megalodon), which, according to the University of California, died out 3.6 million years ago, has so far mainly been discovered with huge teeth and a few vertebrae. According to the study authors, not even a complete megalodon spine is known.

So far it has been estimated to be a maximum of 15 to 20 meters long, reports Sternes’ team. Its length is probably underestimated – but the researchers do not provide any specific new information. Among other things, they used computer tomography scans of the vertebrae of a great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) and megalodon data from previous studies.

Several vulnerabilities uncovered in previous analyses

According to Sternes, the results suggest “that the megalodon was not simply a larger version of the modern great white shark.” A slimmer and more elongated body could therefore indicate that the megalodon also had a longer digestive canal. In this case, food utilization was better and the shark had to eat less. “This means less hunting pressure on other marine creatures,” said Sternes.

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The work of Sterne’s team uncovers several weaknesses in previous analyses, said Timo Moritz of the German Oceanographic Museum in Stralsund, who was not involved in the study. The biggest weak point in a study that was particularly criticized by Sterne’s team was the classic circular argument: “If you assume from the outset that Megalodon looked like a great white shark, you will of course find out in the end that it looked like a great white shark and lived like that has.” The conclusion of the new study that Megalodon was probably slimmer is understandable.

“Rough speculation”

John Hutchinson, a lead author of the 2022 megalodon study that was particularly criticized by Sterne’s team, sees the situation differently: “We estimated that the megalodon individual we modeled was about 15.9 meters long. The new study criticizes this, but delivers “There is no alternative hypothesis and is therefore not meaningful,” said Hutchinson, who works at the Royal Veterinary College in London. “Importantly, the new study argues that without a complete skeleton, any reconstructions are too speculative, but researchers continue to make their own crude speculations,” he criticized.

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