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Megalodons may have been driven to extinction by hungry great whites scoffing all their food © Getty Images
© Getty Images

Megalodons may have been driven to extinction by hungry great whites scoffing all their food

Published: 31st May, 2022 at 16:00
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Analysis of fossil teeth suggests ancient great whites outcompeted their outsized cousins.

When it comes to apex predators living in the ocean, the megalodon, a prehistoric colossus that grew up to 20 metres in length, is surely one of the most impressive.

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But according to a new study analysing the teeth of these ancient predators, megalodons may have been beaten to the punch by the ancestors of today’s great whites, which at six metres in length were much smaller than the carnivorous behemoths.

The team made the discovery by analysing various zinc isotopes in the fossilised teeth of the prehistoric marine animals, dating back five to three million years ago in the Pliocene era.

They found signs of similar degrees of animal matter consumption in the teeth of the megalodons and great white ancestors, suggesting that both animals were competing for the same prey.

Tooth size comparison between extinct Early Pliocene megalodon tooth and a modern great white shark. © MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology

“Our results show, that both megalodon and its ancestor were indeed apex predators, feeding high up their respective food chains,” said co-author Prof Michael Griffiths, from William Paterson University, New Jersey.

“But what was truly remarkable is that zinc isotope values from Early Pliocene shark teeth from North Carolina, suggest largely overlapping trophic levels of early great white sharks with the much larger megalodon.”

The findings suggest that this new isotope method of determining prey consumption may also be applied to other species.

“Our research illustrates the feasibility of using zinc isotopes to investigate the diet and trophic ecology of extinct animals over millions of years,” said co-author Jeremy McCormack, a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute.

“The method can also be applied to other groups of fossil animals including our own ancestors.”

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Authors

Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.

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