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Megalodon: study reveals the appearance of the extinct giant shark

Taking part in the international research group is also the University of Pisa, the only Italian university participating in the study

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Did the Megalodon look like the great white sharks of today’s seas? For years, researchers have been wondering about the appearance of   this huge extinct shark that lived about 15-3.6 million years ago, and finally the answer seems to have been found. A new scientific study, in which Dr Alberto Collareta, a palaeontologist at the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Pisa, took part, has shown that the giant shark known by the scientific name of Carcharocles megalodon (or Otodus megalodon) had a slimmer body than previous studies had suggested.

“In science fiction novels and movies, the Megalodon is typically portrayed as a monstrous shark of titanic proportions," explains Dr Alberto Collareta, the only Italian member of the team of 26 international scientists, who took part in this research. “This is not surprising, since the maximum size of this shark, one of the largest marine predators that has ever existed, is now estimated at around 15-20 metres in total length, and there is little doubt about its hyper-carnivorous diet.

“Understanding the biology, evolution and extinction of the Megalodon," Dr. Collareta continues, “is important for the significant impact this species had on the ecology and evolution of the marine ecosystems that gave rise to current oceans. However, the fossil record of Megalodon is almost essentially represented by its characteristic huge teeth, while skeletal remains are extremely rare”.

The lack of complete Megalodon skeletons has always led researchers to reconstruct the appearance of this ancient giant of the seas by modelling it on that of the current white shark (Carcharodon carcharias). This hypothesis has now been refuted by the study of the international research team of which Collareta is a member and which has recently published a new study in the prestigious international scientific journal Palaeontologia Electronica. This study shows that the Megalodon had a slenderer body shape than the current white shark.

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“This deduction,” the researcher goes on to explain, “comes from the restudy of an incomplete set of fossil vertebrae belonging to a single specimen of Megalodon discovered in Belgium in the 19th century. In particular, the total body length of that specimen, if estimated on the diameter of the vertebrae of the current white shark, is much less than the length of the incomplete vertebral column alone (9.2 metres vs. 11.1 metres)” “This simple observation,’ Collareta concludes, “strongly suggests that Megalodon was not merely a bulkier version of the modern great white shark, but it was different from the latter in a slenderer physiognomy.

Although, in the absence of complete skeletal remains, the exact shape of Megalodon’s body remains uncertain, the results presented in this new research constitute the most cogent empirical evidence for such a shape and represent a significant step towards its reconstruction.

The article “White shark comparison reveals a slender body for the extinct megatooth shark, Otodus megalodon (Lamniformes: Otodontidae)” is freely accessible online at the following web address:

The authors are Phillip Sternes, Patrick Jambura, Julia Türtscher, Jürgen Kriwet, Mikael Siversson, Iris Feichtinger, Gavin Naylor, Adam Summers, John Maisey, Taketeru Tomita, Joshua Moyer, Timothy Higham, João Paulo da Silva, Hugo Bornatowski, Douglas Long, Victor Perez, Alberto Collareta, Charlie Underwood, David Ward, Romain Vullo, Gerardo González-Barba, Harry Maisch IV, Michael Griffiths, Martin Becker, Jake Wood and Kenshu Shimada.

  • 22 January 2024

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