Which species of a giant, extinct mammal has a name that translates to “big tooth”?
And the answer: Megalodon.
Estimated to live around 23 million years ago, the Megalodon is an extinct relative of the mackerel shark, and is believed to be the largest species of shark to exist on Earth. Archaeologists suggest that a Megalodon which measured in at around 16 meters, or 52 ft, could have weighed up to 48 metric tons.
The aptly named Megalodon was a shark almost the third of the size of a modern blue whale, and had teeth about the size of your hand (or bigger). For over 10 million years, these immense creatures roamed in oceans across the world, from the Netherlands to New Zealand. In fact, Megalodon were the oceans' top apex predator until they went extinct around 2.6 million years ago.
Because shark skeletons are mostly comprised of cartilage, however, there is very little fossilized evidence still remaining of the Megalodon. Thus, most of what remains of this massive shark are its equally massive teeth, which have been found on every continent except Asia and Antartica. Using these fossils as a guide, scientists continue to piece together the appearance and features of the Megalodon. Luckily, since each Megalodon had an impressive set of 276 teeth, there are plenty to go around.
The Megalodon was originally believed to be a member of the diverse order of sharks called Lamniformes, which today includes sand tigers, threshers and the famous Great White Shark. However, upon further investigation, the features on the teeth of the Megalodon indicate that it was actually a member of a now distinct order called Otodontidae, also known as the "Mega-Toothed" sharks. Because Megalodon's massive size was linked to the size of its prey, environmental factors led to growth increases in marine mammals such as dolphins and whales while also increasing the size of their predators. Yet eventually, this meant that Megalodons grew to unsustainable sizes, and the changing environment wasn't much of a help. Colder temperatures brought on by the Ice Age may have decreased food supplies, as whales began to establish migration patterns to and from the poles. With the rise in other large predators like the sperm whale, the Megaolodon eventually faded into extinction.
Learn more about the world's largest (extinct) shark here.