Megalodon sharks were longer than a bus, heavy as 10 elephants - study

A 3D modeling built thanks to scans of a shockingly well-preserved megalodon shark vertebrate column helped show just how massive these giant sea creatures were.

 An artistic illustration of the megalodon shark, one of the largest sharks to ever lurk in Earth's oceans. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
An artistic illustration of the megalodon shark, one of the largest sharks to ever lurk in Earth's oceans.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The megalodon was one of the largest types of shark to ever lurk in Earth's waters. But how large was this prehistoric selachian? Well, large enough to devour an entire killer whale, according to a new study.

This has been difficult to ascertain. While scientists know for certain that megalodons existed and were massive, there aren't any fully preserved anatomical remains of an entire megalodon shark. As such, we were never exactly sure how big this massive sea creature really was.

But thanks to a study published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Science Advances, we now have a better idea of just how enormous this ancient apex predator was.

Megalodon: One of the largest sharks in history – we're gonna need a bigger boat

The study revealed that megalodons, the scientific name being Otodus megalodon (big tooth), were 16 meters long and weighed over 61 tons.

 Megalodon shark jaws and teeth at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Megalodon shark jaws and teeth at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

To put that in perspective, its length is equal to the height of three giraffes, longer than a London bus and a semitrailer, and taller than the Brachiosaurus dinosaur.

In terms of weight, it weighs about as much as 10 elephants and is close in weight to a NASA space shuttle.

To put this in another perspective, compare this to other, modern sharks. The great white shark, one of the most infamous species, grows to at most a little over six meters and tends to weigh between two to three tons.

Having said that, it is still dwarfed by other larger marine animals, such as several types of whales.

Also, contrary to popular belief, the megalodon was not the largest shark to ever swim the seas. The whale shark is bigger, sometimes growing to 18 or even 21 meters long. However, these gentle giants only filter feed and don't eat large prey – unlike the megalodon.

Now, what can a gigantic shark like this do?

According to the researchers, the megalodon shark was capable of devouring prey that was as much as eight meters long. For context, the scientists note that this is the size of orcas, also known as killer whales

This is especially notable because killer whales are essentially the top apex predator in the world after humans. Not only do these intelligent hunters have no natural predators, but they can prey on essentially anything in the ocean, including blue whales and great white sharks.

But it is possible that megalodon sharks could have turned the hunters into the hunted. In other words, these apex predators were likely entirely on another level.

How did  scientists figure out how large a megalodon shark was?

The curious thing about sharks and their close cousins, rays, is that they don't really have bones.

Sharks have skeletons made mostly of cartilage rather than bones. There are good reasons for this – they're flexible and less dense, which lets sharks conserve energy. Of course, this also comes with some drawbacks – such as that it prevents sharks from ever evolving to go on land, since its skeleton would likely be crushed under its own weight. Another problem is skeletal preservation since cartilage doesn't preserve as well as bones do. As such, there are rarely any significant shark fossils.

The big exception to this is shark teeth, which are made of enamel. Because of their durable and tough composition allowing them to be preserved as fossils – and the fact that sharks tend to lose tens of thousands of teeth throughout their lifetime – these have primarily been the main ways scientists have been able to study them instead of actual full fossils. 

 A megalodon shark tooth seen being held in an adult human hand for scale. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) A megalodon shark tooth seen being held in an adult human hand for scale. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Megalodon shark teeth, for the record, were enormous and were comparable in size to an adult human hand.

Sometimes shark fossils are found, to an extent. For example, there are preserved fossilized megalodon shark jaws that are on display in museums.

However, this is usually as far as it goes, and it isn't enough to get a full picture of just how big the megalodon shark was.

Luckily, there is an exception to all of this: A shockingly well-preserved portion of a megalodon vertebral column.

This fossil was found in the 1860s near Antwerp and is currently stored at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels. 

Using this, the scientists were able to scan the column and put the data into the 3D modeling software Meshmixer, along with other preexisting data about megalodons. 

The team made use of other 3D modeling programs such as Rhino, Geomagic Design X, zbrush and Blender to create a fully recreated skeleton.

But as important as their discovery is, the study has also provided tools for future research, thanks to the creation of a full 3D model, which can also be used as the basis of other similar reconstructions in the future.