Our Vision of Legendary Shark Is Flawed

Researchers say we actually don't know what giant megalodon looked like
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 10, 2022 2:03 PM CST
Our Vision of Legendary Shark Is Flawed
Megalodon might have looked something like this ... or not.   (Getty Images/Warpaintcobra)

We know Otodus megalodon was a massive shark, about three times as long as the largest great white shark ever recorded. But we don't know much else about the appearance of the beast that swam around Earth's oceans between 3.6 million and 15 million years ago, despite many depictions in popular culture, including in 2018's The Meg. In fact, a new study finds we're in the dark when it comes to the proportions of megalodon's head, fins, and body shape, Live Science reports. "A shark's skeleton is made of cartilage," and "cartilage does not preserve well in the fossil record," lead author Phillip Sternes, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside, tells the outlet. To date, researchers have only found megalodon teeth and vertebrae.

Those teeth suggest the shark—which belonged to the extinct Otodontidae family within an order of sharks called Lamniformes—was about 50 to 65 feet long. Some experts also believe megalodon was a fast swimmer as a result of being partially warm-blooded like another Lamniform, the great white shark, hence depictions based on that apex predator. In an attempt to gain further descriptions, researchers in 2020 produced a general model for megalodon by taking the average fin and body shapes from two-dimensional analyses of the great white and four other living, partly warm-blooded species of Lamniformes. Sternes and colleagues, however, found issue with that.

They compared detailed field guide drawings representing a typical shark within each of the 15 species of Lamniformes and found all look distinct, according to the study published in Historical Biology. The partly warm-blooded species couldn't be distinguished from cold-blooded species by appearance. In other words, there was no good reason for researchers to model megalodon's appearance on only five species. It "could very well have looked like any of the 15 living Lamniform species," Sternes says in a release. Sternes maintains that "until we have skeletal remains of megalodon, science does not know what the shark actually looked like," per Live Science. (Read more megalodon stories.)

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