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July 14, 2022

A Mega Predator of Predators

Imagine! A prehistoric, megatooth shark that lived as recently as 3.6 million years ago, measuring almost 70 feet in length, and living at the very top of its food chain. While others focus on today's sharks, explore with us the largest marine predator that has ever existed, a creature with the power of 276 teeth, each the size of a man's hand. Learn more on NSF's "The Discovery Files."

Credit: National Science Foundation

A Mega Predator of Predators

This is The Discovery Files, from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Imagine a prehistoric shark more than 3 times the size of a great white shark, that evolved after dinosaurs went extinct and ruled the seas until only 3 million years ago.

Enter Megalodon, the largest known shark and the "apex predator" in the ocean during its time. What, you wonder, did a fish that size eat and why isn't it still swimming in the ocean?

Supported in part by NSF, researchers at Princeton, William Paterson, DePaul, UCLA and UC Merced universities, took a deep dive into the ancient marine food chain to explore Megalodon's menu options and understand why it went extinct. It turns out the megalodon's teeth provided a great source of evidence.

A single enamel-covered Megalodon tooth was sometimes bigger than a human hand. That rock-hard enamel, which has lasted for millions of years, provided a critical resource in the team's research; nitrogen 15. The more nitrogen 15 in an organism, the higher it was on the food chain.

Prehistoric ocean food chains were longer, with more links, than modern ocean food chains, providing Megalodon with lots of prey to choose from and its teeth told the story.

It turns out this mega fish ate mostly animals at the highest links of that prehistoric food chain. Researchers hope to understand that ancient food chain and uncover clues to Megalodon's extinction.

The research could provide even greater insight on life in the prehistoric world – and potentially solve some of the mysteries in food chains of today's animals.

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