All About the Megalodon, Shark Giant of Prehistoric Times

By: Clarissa Mitton  | 
A megalodon tooth as large as a hand on the left and a shark tooth the size of a pinky on the right
Here, you can compare the tooth size of a megalodon (left) with that of a great white (right) and get an idea of the extinct animal's massive scale. Mark_Kostich / Shutterstock
Key Takeaways
  • Megalodon sharks, estimated to be up to 65 feet (20 meters) long, were the largest sharks that ever lived.
  • Their jaws could span up to 11 feet (3.4 meters) wide with a bite force significantly stronger than a great white shark's.
  • Fossilized teeth, up to 7.48 inches (19 cm) long, provide most of the evidence for understanding their size, diet and ecological role.

The megalodon shark has intrigued scientists and the public alike with its nearly unfathomable size and power. Once ruling the ancient oceans, this prehistoric predator is often cited as the largest shark to have ever lived and even inspired a Jason Statham movie franchise.

Understanding the true nature of the megalodon — covering aspects from its appearance and diet to its habitat — sheds light on the evolutionary marvels of the ocean's depths and the factors that led to the rise and fall of the legendary species.


Join us as we separate megalodon fact from fiction.


Is There a Bigger Shark Than the Megalodon?

No, there is no known shark, past or present, that surpasses the megalodon in size. There aren't any living sharks that come close, even amongst the biggest sharks in the world.

The megalodon holds the record as the largest shark to have ever roamed the world's oceans, which drives home its unparalleled position in the marine food chain.


That said, the megalodon was not the largest fish in the ocean. That record goes to Leedsichthys problematic, another prehistoric giant. This fish was approximately 16.5 meters (54.1 feet) long and much larger than the average megalodon. While it was huge, it was likely a filter-feeder and not a predator.

Physical Features of the Megalodon Shark

The earliest megalodon fossils (Otodus megalodon, previously known as Carcharocles megalodon or Carcharodon megalodon) are 20 million years old. These fossils tell us a lot about what the megalodon might have looked like.

Understanding the megalodon's size and physical features is essential for appreciating the sheer magnitude of this ancient creature. From its gigantic jaws to its formidable teeth, each aspect of the megalodon's anatomy contributed to its reputation as a dominant force in prehistoric oceans.


How Big Was a Megalodon Shark?

The fossil record leads the scientific community to estimate that the largest megalodon was up to 65 feet long (nearly the length of two school buses!). But how, exactly, did they determine the size?

Fossilized shark skeletons are extremely rare, due to the cartilaginous nature of their bodies, which do not fossilize as well as bone. Consequently, paleontologists rely on fossilized teeth to determine the size of these ancient creatures. They use sophisticated methods to extrapolate the overall body size from the dimensions of these teeth.

Megalodon size estimates are then compared to the size of modern great white sharks, which pale in comparison both in terms of body size and body mass. Even when compared to a whale shark, the largest fish swimming in today's oceans, the megalodon's size is astonishing.

Megalodon Jaws

The megalodon's jaw was a marvel of prehistoric evolution, possessing powerful jaws that could open wide enough to engulf two adult people side-by-side. It's estimated that their jaw would span 8.8 to 11 feet (2.7 to 3.4 meters) wide.

What's more, the megalodon had an impressive bite force, roughly six to 10 times stronger than that of a great white shark and at least three times stronger than that of a Tyrannosaurus rex. This incredible bite force, combined with a massive jaw, allowed the megalodon to dominate the ancient seas.

Megalodon Teeth

Megalodon teeth are among the most iconic fossils, revealing much about the size and feeding habits of this ancient predator.

The largest megalodon tooth ever discovered measures an impressive 7.48 inches in length. It was found in the desert of Ocucaje, Peru. However, it's worth noting most adult megalodon teeth were typically 4 to 5 inches long. Teeth exceeding 6 inches are very rare.

These massive, fossilized teeth are characterized by their triangular shape and robust structure. The jaw was lined with rows of large, serrated teeth designed for slicing through the flesh and bone of its prey. In fact, adult sharks likely had about 276 teeth.

The study of megalodon teeth has been crucial for scientists to understand the feeding behavior, diet and ecological role of this extinct marine giant.

What Did the Megalodon Look Like?

For many years, reconstructions of the megalodon depicted it as a gargantuan version of modern great white sharks; however, this comparison is now considered inaccurate by the scientific community.

Instead of the elongated nose or rostrum characteristic of the great white, the megalodon likely had a shorter nose, paired with a much flatter, compact jaw and long pectoral fins, distinguishing it significantly in appearance from its modern-day relatives.


Where Did the Megalodon Live?

The megalodon was a global marine predator, with its fossilized teeth having been discovered all over the world. Megalodon teeth have been found on every continent except Antarctica.

The megalodon thrived in warm waters, which provided the ideal conditions for its hunting lifestyle. The widespread discovery of its teeth in diverse geographic locations reveals the vast range of the megalodon's habitat.


Predators and Prey

The megalodon was a fearsome predator, sitting at the very top of the prehistoric food chain, with a diet that required large prey because of its size. Its choice of prey included a variety of large marine mammals such as baleen whales, seals, sea cows and, occasionally, sea turtles.

Evidence supporting this predator-prey relationship comes from many whale fossils, which have distinct gashes that match the size and shape of megalodon teeth, indicating violent encounters. The sheer size and power of the megalodon meant it could tackle almost any marine animal, making it the uncontested apex predator of its time.


Its ability to prey on such a wide range of large marine animals underscores the megalodon's role in regulating the populations of these species and maintaining the balance of marine ecosystems. The consumption of large marine mammals, like baleen whales, would have been crucial in meeting the energy demands of this colossal shark, reflecting its adaptability and prowess as a hunter.

Reproduction and Upbringing

Experts believe megalodons produced live young, but it's not clear if they were ovoviviparous or viviparous. Ovoviviparous means the eggs remain in the mother until they hatch, whereas viviparous means fertilized embryos take continuous nourishment from the mother.

Based on juvenile teeth, it's believed that newborn pups may have been about 2 meters (6.6 feet) long.


Not much is known about the megalodon's relationships, but experts believe they gave birth close to the shore, where the shallow coastal waters would have provided a nursery for the pups. This strategy would have offered the young sharks protection from predators in the open ocean.

These nursery areas, rich in food sources like fish and smaller marine mammals, would have been ideal for the juvenile megalodons to hone their hunting skills without the immediate threat of larger predators.


Do Megalodon Sharks Still Exist?

No, megalodon sharks do not still exist; they went extinct way more than a million years ago. The primary evidence supporting their extinction lies in the fossil record — specifically, the lack of recent giant shark teeth or fossil remains that would indicate their continued existence.

If megalodons were still roaming the oceans, we would expect to find a significant number of their distinctive, massive shark teeth scattered across the seafloor, given the rate at which sharks shed their teeth.


Moreover, the presence of such a colossal predator in today's oceans would leave unmistakable signs, such as distinct bite marks on large marine mammals, which are not observed.

The absence of these indicators, combined with the comprehensive study of fossil evidence, conclusively supports the scientific consensus that the megalodon has been extinct for approximately 2.6 million years.


How Did the Megalodon Become Extinct?

Paleontologists believe that the extinction of the megalodon shark was closely tied to significant climatic shifts that occurred millions of years ago. As ocean temperatures began to drop and sea levels changed, Earth's climate underwent profound alterations.

This environmental shift led other large marine mammals, which constituted the primary food source for the megalodon, to migrate to colder waters in search of suitable habitats. Consequently, the megalodons were left behind without enough food to sustain their massive size and energy requirements.


This lack of adequate prey, coupled with the changing marine ecosystems and increased competition from emerging predators, ultimately led to the decline and eventual extinction of this once-dominant marine predator. It turns out even the most formidable creatures are vulnerable to climate change.

This article was created in conjunction with AI technology, then made sure it was fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.


Frequently Asked Questions

What were the primary prey of megalodon sharks?
Megalodon sharks primarily preyed on large marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and seals, using their powerful jaws and teeth to hunt effectively.
How did megalodon sharks contribute to their ecosystem?
Megalodon sharks helped maintain the balance of the marine ecosystem by keeping the population of large marine mammals in check.