Prehistoric megalodon sharks roamed the oceans between 20 million and 3.6 million years ago, during the Miocene and Pliocene eras. These ancient sharks grew to enormous sizes, reaching up to 59 feet (18 meters) long, according to the Natural History Museum in London, making them among the largest fish ever to live in the ocean. In comparison, modern great white sharks are just one-third the length of megalodons. The long-extinct sharks' teeth have been discovered worldwide, on every continent except Antarctica, providing a glimpse into the vast domination that these giants achieved.
But size isn't megalodon's only claim to fame. Here are seven jaw-dropping facts about these gargantuan sharks that might surprise you.
Their fossilized remains were mistaken for dragons' tongues
Before people made the connection between fossilized megalodon teeth and modern sharks' teeth, they thought these pointed rocks were the tips of dragons' tongues, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. In the 17th century, it was widely believed that these mysterious rocks had medicinal properties, and people would collect them for good luck, Smithsonian Magazine reported.
Teeth are the most common form of megalodon fossils. This is because sharks can lose all of their teeth every one to two weeks, according to the Natural History Museum, equating to around 40,000 teeth being produced and lost during a shark's lifetime. Some of these teeth eventually sank to the seafloor and became fossilized.
Megalodons were over eight times heavier than elephants
Megalodons weighed up to 143,000 pounds (65,000 kilograms), according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. Adult females are believed to have been longer and heavier than males — possibly up to twice the size.
Scientists have figured out megalodon's body dimensions almost exclusively using the shark's teeth, according to a report published in 2020 in the journal Nature. Scientists compared the teeth size of great white sharks with their other dimensions, and used these correlations to predict the size and weight of the extinct megalodon sharks. In the 2020 study, however, researchers inferred megalodon's size by looking at dimensions in five similar (and living) sharks, such as the great white shark.
Megalodon bites were the strongest of any animal
Megalodon bites are estimated to be at least six times as strong as those of Tyrannosaurus rex and more powerful than any known animal, Live Science previously reported. The estimated bite force of megalodons is between 108,514 and 182,201 Newtons (24,395 and 40,960 pound-force), according to the Natural History Museum. This enabled these monster sharks to munch down on large whales and fish. In comparison great white shark bites only manage 18,219 N (4,096 pounds), and humans a measly 1,317 N (296 pounds), the Natural History Museum stated.
Megalodons weren't the only supersized animals in the sea
During the Miocene era, megalodon wasn't the only enormous beast around. A large species of whale, called Leviathan melvillei, graced the seas near modern-day Peru at the same time, according to the journal Nature. Whether these Leviathans, which were about 43 to 59 feet (13 to 18 meters) long, ever competed with megalodons is unknown, Live Science previously reported. While other species of whales were part of megalodons' diet, these two sea behemoths would have been in competition, NPR reported.
Megalodons existed for nearly 70 times longer than modern humans have
Megalodons inhabited the oceans for around 20 million years, according to the Natural History Museum, while Homo sapiens appeared around 300,000 years ago. The key to these sharks' long reign is likely their almost-invincible size. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the sharks could make a meal out of the majority of sea-life around at the time.
As some of the largest animals in the ocean, megalodons may have prevented other animals from growing bigger and becoming threats. This idea comes from a study in the journal PLOS One, which proved that ancestors of some modern whales began evolving significantly in size only after the megalodons' extinction. The researchers require further information to determine exactly why this happened, but according to the BBC, baleen whales were among those to grow substantially toward their current size.
Megalodons had cannibal babies
Before even reaching the ocean, megalodon babies demonstrated their carnivorous ferocity while still in the womb. To ensure survival, megalodon shark babies may have eaten their own siblings, Live Science previously reported. As each embryo would grow to take up significant space, eating them gave the surviving shark more room to grow and reach lengths of 6.6 feet (2 m) at birth.
The voracious hunger of the unborn sharks likely made pregnant megalodons eat more too, according to Historical Biology, as reported by Smithsonian Magazine. The unborn sharks' brutal cannibal survival technique may have been bad news for the unfortunate siblings, but it likely played a role in the species' colossal growth.
Cold waters may have killed the megalodons
Around 3.6 million years ago, as Earth entered a period of global cooling and drying, megalodons went extinct, according to the Natural History Museum. These sharks resided in tropical waters, but as sea temperatures dropped at the end of the Pliocene epoch, and seas began to freeze, megalodons' habitat may have been greatly restricted, Live Science reported. Meanwhile, much of their prey — primarily smaller whales, seals and sea turtles — died out or relocated to waters that were too cold for their shark predators.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, megalodons required a high prey intake to sustain their physiological traits. They were probably mesotherms, meaning they had specialized blood vessels keeping their bodies even warmer than the tropical waters surrounding them. To achieve this, they retained heat from their muscles' contractions.
Originally published on Live Science.