Why Megalodon (Definitely) Went Extinct


About 8 million years ago, a little baleen
whale was swimming in the warm coastal waters of Peru. It was only about 3 or 4 meters long, about
the size of a Beluga whale, and while it filtered mouthfuls of plankton-rich water, it was unaware
that just below it swam a predator. Like the great white sharks of our times,
this predator likely hunted whales from below or behind, in case its prey was capable of
echolocation. It turns out that this little whale, known
as Piscobalaena, didn’t have that ability, but for the hunter, the element of surprise
was enough. It swam up for the attack, and that was that
for Piscobalaena. We know who the predator was, because it left
a tooth in the whale’s body, which eventually fossilized. It usually goes by its species name, Megalodon,
and it was the largest shark that ever lived. At up to 18 meters, it was almost three-quarters
the size of a modern Blue whale. Its teeth were as big as your hand – or
bigger. And its jaws were wide enough to swallow you
whole. Megalodon lived all over the world, from the
Netherlands to New Zealand. And for more 10 million years, it was at the
top of its game as the oceans’ apex predator … until, 2.6 million years ago, when it
went extinct. Yes, really – don’t let Hollywood convince
you otherwise. I know you’re smarter than that. Megalodon disappeared entirely from the fossil
record, just as the Pliocene epoch gave way to the Pleistocene. And there’s also proof of its extinction
in the composition of marine life that we find today — especially in the kinds and
sizes of whales that swim in our modern oceans. So, what happened to the largest shark in
history? Well, it turns out that while Megalodon may
have been the biggest shark that ever swam, it would eventually be defeated by the
greatest. Megalodon was the biggest, scariest shark
in a family of big, scary sharks. It belongs to the diverse order of sharks
known as Lamniformes, which today includes sand tigers, goblins, threshers, and the Great
White. And when Megalodon was first described in
1835, scientists thought that its big, serrated, blade-like teeth looked so much like those
of the great white that Megalodon was originally placed in the same family. But today, based on features around the base
of its massive teeth, most experts think it was probably in a separate family whose members
are all now extinct, called Otodontidae, also known as the Mega-Toothed sharks. Now, one of the oldest and smallest of the
group of Megatooths that gave rise to Megalodon was a shark known as Otodus obliquus, which
lived in the Early Eocene, nearly 20 million years before Megalodon appeared on the scene. And some scientists think Megalodon belonged
to this same genus, Otodus, while others assign it to another genus of extinct sharks, called
Carcharocles. Either way, Megalodon was the largest of all
the Megatooths, first showing up in the fossil record about 23 million years ago. So, how and why did it get so huge? Well, Megalodon’s massive size was linked
to the size of its prey. And both were shaped by forces much bigger
than themselves. These external forces began at the end of
the Mesozoic, when plate tectonics caused the uplift of mountains in North America and
Asia. The weathering of these growing mountain ranges
pumped massive amounts of nutrient-rich sediment into the oceans, increasing the productivity
of ecosystems near the shore. And as the algae and plants grew, so did the
preferred food group: marine mammals. Marine mammals like whales, dolphins, and
seals all have pretty high fat contents, making them a nutritious, high-calorie snack for
any predator that can catch them. And as the marine mammals grew over time,
so did the sharks. Over the course of about 20 million years,
marine mammals and the line of Megatooth sharks that led to Megalodon both doubled in size! And Megalodon in particular started to grow
fast. Fossils of newborn megalodon, found in places
like Panama, show that they were about 2 to 3 meters long, half the size of a modern great
white shark, and about one and a half times as large as their ancestor Otodus obliquus! And these massive baby sharks grew like weeds. We know this because shark vertebrae show
rings of their growth, just like tree rings. And these rings show that Megalodon babies
grew almost twice as quickly as Otodus obliquus, reaching their maximum length at around 25
years old. So, getting bigger over time, and then getting
bigger faster, probably helped Megalodon keep up in the ongoing size race with the marine
mammals they hunted. And hunt it most certainly did. Its teeth have been found stuck in the ribs
of many unidentified whale species, as well as the tiny Piscobalaena, and even in a pinniped
about the size of a sea lion. So, size was a very useful adaptation for
the giant sharks – until it wasn’t. Because 2.6 million years ago, Megalodon disappeared. And there are a couple of potential reasons
for this. For one thing, 2.6 million years ago marked
the beginning of the Pleistocene, when cooler temperatures and long periods of glaciation
began to set in -– also known as the Ice Ages. This change in temperature could have affected
Megalodon directly, or it could have impacted its food source. That’s because the change in climate led
to a restructuring of how and where whales lived. As the climate shifted, more productive environments
with more food began to take shape closer to the poles, so whales started to spend a
lot more time there and became more migratory. So maybe the problem for Megalodon was that
its prey started moving to where the water was colder — too cold, perhaps, for Megalodon
to follow. For a long time, scientists thought this might
have been what did in the world’s biggest shark. But in 2016, a group of researchers led by
Dr. Catalina Pimiento decided to test that hypothesis. Specifically, they tested the assumption that
Megalodon couldn’t live in cold water. Pimiento and her team used a climate forecasting
model to recreate ocean temperatures during the Pliocene and Miocene, and compared those
temperatures to where Megalodon had lived. They found that while the shark preferred
water from about 12 to 27 degrees Celsius, its fossils were still found in places where
the water was as cold as 1 degree! So Megalodon probably was okay with colder
water. Which makes sense, because many large sharks
today are mesothermic – they can keep their bodies a little warmer than the surrounding
water temperature, which helps them stay active even in colder waters. So, if changes to the whales’ movement and
habitats wasn’t the problem then what was? Well, the disappearance of Megalodon seems
to coincide with two big, important changes in the animal kingdom. The first was the appearance of new predators
that Megalodon had to compete with. For example, starting around the middle of
the Miocene, we find the giant sperm whale with the epic name of Livyatan melvilli, named
for none other than the author of Moby Dick! But unlike the suction-feeding sperm whales
of our times, Livyatan had short, powerful jaws. And its teeth were big, strong, and meant
for biting into flesh. Also, at 17 meters long, Livyatan wasn’t
just snacking on squid. It was eating other whales. And it was only one of many species of carnivorous
whales in the middle Miocene. In the Late Miocene, another adversary shows
up in the fossil record — the earliest ancestor of the Great White Shark, Carcharodon hubbelli. This shark was a direct competitor with Megalodon,
as proven by its tooth marks that have been found in fossils of the same whale species
that we knew Megalodon ate. Namely, that little Piscobalaena. Then, a few million years later, in the early
Pliocene, the first fossils appear of the modern great white, Carcharadon carcharias. Now, in addition to having to compete with
newer, more nimble sharks like these, some of Megalodon’s most important prey — namely,
whales — were on the decline. Toward the end of the Pliocene, the number
of whales dramatically decreased from about 60 whale species, to about 40. Many of these species were filter feeders,
and fed on krill and other organisms, which in turn ate microscopic algae called diatoms. And starting around 3 million years ago, the
oceans began to experience a serious drop in diatom diversity. It’s not 100% clear why this happened, but
it might relate to changes in ocean circulation that took place when North and South America
finally came together, and water could no longer circulate between the Pacific and the
Atlantic. Regardless of the reason, fewer diatoms meant
fewer krill, which in turn meant fewer whales. And with less food, Megalodon had to compete
even harder with the smaller, faster great white shark. Being bigger is great, if it gives you the
advantage of having access to a different food group. But when it no longer does, it just means
you’re bulkier and require more food to survive. Which is why, 2.6 million years ago, the very
last of the Megalodon disappeared from the fossil record. And the absence of the Megalodon may have
had a big impact on the world’s oceans. In the past couple million years, great white
sharks and Orcas have taken over the roles of apex predator, but these much smaller carnivores
couldn’t hunt the larger whales that Megalodon was likely able to eat. For instance, we know that modern Great Whites
frequently eat dolphins half their size, so it’s possible that the 18-meter Megalodon
was eating whales that were as big as 9 meters — much too big for other predators to handle. And after Megalodon went extinct, the size
of whales exploded. During the Pleistocene, the waters grew colder,
and the new and improved productivity at the poles meant diatoms bounced back. And this newly productive environment, along
with the absence of large predators, meant that whales were able to become twice as big
as the biggest whales of the Pliocene. This is why the blue whale, the largest animal
our planet has ever seen, appeared in the fossil record only recently – less than 2
million years ago. Without 18 meter sharks swimming around, the
oceans could finally host 25 meter whales. So, Megalodon and its ancestors had a great
run. Over 30 million years, they became larger
in order to eat larger marine mammals. But when those mammals started to disappear,
and when competition with Great White Sharks and other predators became too fierce, Megalodon
didn’t make the evolutionary cut. But it’s worth noting that the biggest Great
White Sharks of today are about a meter longer than their ancestors were in the Miocene,
and they grow a little faster when they’re young, too, just like Megalodon did. It took nearly 30 million years for the mega-toothed
sharks to reach the enormous size of Megalodon, a slow transformation that took place as whales
and other marine mammals slowly grew in size. But whales today are already enormous, and
face very few predators. Which leaves the niche of super-shark wide
open. So it just might be that the Great White Shark
could become the Megalodon of the future, and that giant sharks might patrol our oceans
once again. Thanks for joining me today, and special thanks
to our Eontologists, Jake Hart, Jon Ivy, John Davison Ng and STEVE! If you’d like to join them in supporting
this channel, head over to patreon.com/eons and make your pledge for some neat n nerdy
benefits. Now, what do you want to learn about? Leave your girl a comment, and don’t forget
to go to youtube.com/eons and subscribe.

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Reader Comments

  1. PBS Eons

    As some of you have pointed out, the size comparison we show at 9:36 features a humpback whale instead of a blue whale. That's my fault! The illustration (from a stock photo site) was improperly labeled and we missed the mistake in our review. We spent so much time making sure we had all of the extinct species depicted accurately that we missed the (enormously) obvious error right in front of us. Sorry for the mistake! -Seth

  2. Skoufalot Lord

    Well, I don't like the "(definitely)" in the title. He haven't explored 95% of the ocean and we can't know what's out there. There could be things we have never seen before, and things we thought to be extinct, like megalodons, as well as things that megalodons could eat and survive. Your points in the video are correct though. Fascinating

  3. Colin Henshaw

    One thing that was not mentioned is the mass extinction that occurred at the time the Megalodon became extinct. It was a minor mass extinction not on the scale at that which killed of the dinosaurs. Some have proposed that a supernova explosion in the Sco-Sgr stellar association was the culprit. The expanding supernova exposed the environment with radiation, and deposited Iron-60 in the world's oceans. The radiation is said to have killed off many marine organisms, including the Megalodon sharks.

  4. Sir Park

    me: the megalodon is extinct

    this video: the megalodon is extinct

    the news: the megalodon is extinct

    everyone; the megalodon is extinct

    my 7 y/o brother: you don't know that

  5. Hannah Banana

    The Megalodon could grow up to 60 feet long. It probably died because it was always so hungry. Imagine eating a bag of Cheetos, and your really hungry. Imagine having to have to count to 10 seconds or sometimes more just to have one… That’s probably how they felt, and the starved.

  6. HoNewerth

    It's a bit hard to believe they went extinct because of scarcity of prey. If whale population really did fall, shouldn't one expect for a species to adapt and start eating things other than whales? I mean, if you're hungry you'll eat virtually anything

  7. Gnorts Mr Alien

    If artist's reconstructions are anything to go by, the real reason Megalodon went extinct is that it lost the ability to close its mouth 😏

  8. Jeff Dyashuk

    Billion and billion and billion years…. u call that since? It’s a fairytale. How do we back date that far if the oldest writing in pyramids about 4-5k years ago, that’s. It

  9. vRevxnge mc

    I have a theory: what if Megalodons made babys and then it repeats to this day? So maybe megalodons are steal here. Same for all species that scares me

  10. Bobby j boi

    The Megalodon could still be alive because only 5% of the ocean has been explore so anything could be under there maybe even the Kraken or the Megalodon and their been many sightings of them over the years and this one of the most deepest trench in the world and 70% of the Earth is covered by water and little of the Earth is covered by land so the Megalodon could be alive

  11. Drew Bravo

    Yeah well, if you had the ability to be everywhere under all four oceans at the same time, you'd probably not make such a rediculous video.

  12. Forever Happy

    Have they ever found anything else except the tooth?I know there are objective facts in science by comparing body size with teeth and then measurinf the creatures length.Maybe,just maybe in this case the shark was not so big but rather had an strange evolution/adaptation with jaws but the body size was not growing that much.

  13. adamgbk1

    Wouldn't the presence of fossils imply that the area the animal was found in was likley disadvantagous to the animal? 5:57 ish seems weird to me and it's a common assumption I see in other places "we found the fossils so it must have lived here" if that were true in my mind they'd have all died simultaneously or something rather than a slow decline from an abscent food source the only other alternative that comes to mind right now would be that megalodons enviroment being in the decline would've forced the population into a smaller area thus making it difficult to compete with others of the same species leading to mass deaths in the solitary area from multiple cascading factors in a small amount of time and here's where my theory crafting gets weaker given my lack of knowledge of the time period I don't think I could say with certainty that the enviroment changed quick enough for that to happen any insight anyone has on that would be pretty nioce with it's size maybe the temperature changes in the world at large also changed the depths at which the animal lived perhaps it didn't go extinct as we define it but rather evolved and got smaller to adapt to living in shallower depths to escape the changes in temperature it's so interesting for all the the evidence we think we have it's difficult to pin down anything too definitive everything has room for interpretation I suppose in a very roundabout way what I'm saying to all maybe we should start looking at the evidence and comming up with other perspectives on the matter.

  14. PsyDuctTape

    Did you research the other 97% of the ocean “miss scientist”
    I think, and I will always think the megaladon is out there somewhere

  15. Torrid Tuber

    I am afraid the role of super shark is quite occupied at the moment, check back with me on this after our current extinction event concludes

  16. Cal twoohnine

    "Definitely extinct"? I'm not saying it isn't, but with about 95% of the ocean and 99% of ocean floor unexplored, it seems like a pretty bold statement.

  17. WolfieMaster Hash

    Science teachers: today we are gonna be learning about sea life

    Me: are we gonna learn about the Megalodon?

    Science teachers: they are already instinct, why would you wanna learn about that?

    Megalodon: Hold my beer

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