Picture yourself as a swimmer on a beach, until a 60-foot shark speeds your way with full ferocity, ready to make you its next lunch. That’s what humans would have faced today if the climate failed to warm the oceans 2.5 million years ago and cause the extinction of this planet’s largest shark. Scientists learned that warmer waters may have driven this animal out of existence, which could lead to future extinctions as the planet warms today.
The megalodon is considered the world’s largest fish and was large enough to feed on whales and manatees. The predator had no natural enemies when entering maturity, although a young megalodon had to steer clear of other sharks in the form of hammerheads. The megalodon shares a striking appearance to the modern great white shark, and the two are close relatives that shared similar traits.
You could get a sense of the creature’s size through its tooth, which is larger than the size of the human hand. People have found many megalodon teeth throughout history, as your average shark sheds around 20,000 teeth throughout its life, and the megalodon was no different. Compared to the gargantuan shark, humans were so small that the beast could have easily swallowed a person whole without hesitation.
Outside of teeth, physical evidence of this amazing shark is minuscule because the cartilage frame of megalodons failed to calcify and survive over the ages. Nevertheless, researchers managed to construct an accurate rendition based on some preserved skeletons.
Megalodons were usually over 60 feet, but scientists estimate that some may have reached over 80 feet, with females on the larger side. Overall, the body mass of this predator ranged between 66,000 and 143,000 pounds.
How Did It Survive?
The megalodon may have first entered the scene over 15 million years ago and survived by self-regulating its body temperature to traverse cold and warm waters. Additionally, research shows that its body temperature was warmer than the average shark and more aligned with the body temperature of a whale.
Other sharks that shared the same territory as megalodon had an average temperature of 68 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. With that, the giant shark held a typical temperature between 95 and 104 degrees, which is the same temperature range found in whales.
The Miocene Life
If you were alive during the Miocene Epoch, you would have noticed that the continents looked similar to the modern age, with some minor land separations interspersed throughout the planet. Early humans roamed the earth with the same group of modern animals we know today, only they had to contend with saber-tooth cats and bear-dogs, or had the opportunity to gaze at semi-aquatic rhinos or three-toed horses grazing the open fields.
Humans would have needed to tread carefully along coastal waters, as the megalodon was known to frequent coastlines in search of prey. Moreover, female megalodons established their nurseries along the coasts, willing to safeguard their young at the slightest hint of danger. The megalodon presence started in the early Miocene Epoch and expanded throughout the Middle Miocene, inhabiting nearly all continental waters across the planet except for Antarctica. However, the megalodon population receded by the Pliocene Epoch.
The Beginning Of The End
Fast forward to the Pliocene Epoch, and you would find the same soaring temperatures as the modern age. During this time, life on this planet suffered through a rise in carbon dioxide that caused the planet to warm. Similar to the modern age, the world fared through melting polar ice caps and rising waters over three million years ago. The explanations behind the rising Pliocene climate vary, but a recent theory suggests that cosmic radiation from a passing supernova warmed the planet.
Regardless of the cause, the rise of CO2 caused animals to move to high-altitude areas in response to the change, and megalodon’s prey migrated to cooler waters with higher altitudes. As a result, megalodon dealt with limited food, which may have played a prominent role in its downfall.
The megalodon could self-regulate its body temperature, but its speedy metabolism forced them to consume additional food. Therefore, the megalodon was not evolved enough to handle a shifting climate and food competition with other predators, such as the killer whale. Even though the megalodon could manage its body temperature, its higher body temperature made adaptation to warmer waters very difficult.
Early humans also dealt with climate change during the Pliocene Epoch, but they managed to withstand it in several ways. For instance, humans survived by developing new tools and hunting larger animals that contained more calories.
Animals that failed to adjust found themselves on the verge of obliteration and the megalodon was among many animals who struggled to cope with changing circumstances. Further, the aquatic beast had no large animals to hunt, as it was among the largest predators of the sea, and its high metabolism failed to adjust to prey scarcity.
Could The Megalodon Still Live Today?
The popularity of the movie The Meg has fueled speculation of the megalodon’s current existence. However, its survival is slim for various reasons. First, humans would have long spotted giant sharks as researchers explore the ocean depths, and its disappearance for the past two million years indicates total extinction.
Second, the megalodon could not survive in a deep-sea habitat due to the minimal food supply, and its relative, the great white shark, prefers life outside of the deep waters. There are deep-sea creatures that evolved to survive in deeper depths, but there is no indication that the megalodon embarked on any form of evolutionary divergence.
Also, the similarity of today’s climate with the Pliocene Epoch would make life just as hard for megalodons in the modern world. If megalodons had survived, they could have faced modern extinction as the planet continues through warming periods. The idea of a living megalodon is fascinating, but this prehistoric monster will remain relegated to the human imagination as scientists aim to discover more about its demise.