Ancient megalodon and great white sharks might not be that similar, study finds

Ancient megalodon and great white sharks might not be that similar, study finds


The Meg, a horror flick from 2018, might have you think the Megalodon looks like an enlarged Great White. But, a new study states it’s more like a leaner shark that migrates near the East Coast.

Julia Gomez
 USA TODAY

The megalodon was thought to look like a supersized great white shark, but a new study suggests otherwise.

Using a great white to “reconstruct the body form of Megalodon lacks empirical fossil support,” says the the study by 26 shark experts.

The study, published by the journal Palaeontologia Electronica on Sunday, suggests there are inconsistencies in a separate study from 2022.

“When looking at previous studies, their reconstructions relied on many underlying assumptions that I felt were not fully tested,” Phillip Sternes, co-leader of the investigation and Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, wrote to USA TODAY in an email. “Both the team and myself all looked into it further and realized there were some discrepancies, and that led us down our new path.”

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Sternes’ team analyzed an incomplete spine believed to have come from a megalodon at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels. They compared the vertebrae from that specimen to one of a great white shark and found that megalodon would be about 17% shorter, and that doesn’t take the size of its head or tail into account.

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“If you predict the megalodon’s body length and shape from a comparison to strictly white sharks, you reach a total length of (about 30 feet),” Sternes said. “But if you put that Megalodon’s vertebral column together you reach a length of (36 feet) and that’s vertebral column alone.”

Sternes and his team analyzed the vertebrae bones of juvenile great whites, then compared them with those of the megalodon specimen. They found that the megalodon’s vertebrae are thinner than the great white’s, and that led them to believe it was slimmer than the infamous shark species.

The study concluded that the megalodon was not only thinner and longer than a great white but also more comparable to mako sharks, which are primarily found off the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, according to NOAA.

Lack of megalodon fossils

According to the Smithsonian, sharks are cartilaginous, meaning their skeleton is entirely made up of cartilage. So they don’t leave behind bony fossils like dinosaurs or humans would.

According to one study, the shark in question has been extinct for almost 3.6 million years. The museum says scientists have to rely on fossilized shark teeth, skin scales, vertebrae or impressions to piece together the history of ancient sharks, which can make it challenging to uncover the mystery of a shark that hasn’t existed for millions of years.

“Although shark teeth are abundant in the fossil record, their bodies are rarely preserved,” the 2022 study says. “Thus, our understanding of the anatomy of the extinct (megalodon) remains rudimentary.”

In other words, lack of skeletal remains is what makes figuring out what these massive creatures actually look like so difficult.

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Bigger than the movies

The association between the megalodon and the great white shark has been made popular because of movies like “The Meg.”

When asked whether he believes it will be hard to sway public perceptions with his team’s study, Sternes said he hopes people will use the information to make their own conclusions.

“It might be difficult, but I am happy to see the public decide for themselves.”

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