A school lesson leads to more precise measurements of the extinct megalodon shark, one of the largest fish ever.
- A new method estimates the ancient megalodon shark was as long as 65 feet.
- The megalodon was one of the largest fish that ever lived.
- The new model uses the width of shark teeth to estimate its overall size.
A Florida student figured out a way to more accurately measure the size of one of the largest fish that ever lived – the extinct megalodon shark – and found that it was even larger than previously estimated.
The megalodon (officially named Otodus megalodon, which means "Big Tooth") lived between 3.6 and 23 million years ago and was thought to be about 34 feet long on average, reaching the maximum length of 60 feet. Now a new study puts that number at up to 65 feet (20 meters).
Homework assignment leads to a discovery
The study, published in Palaeontologia Electronica, used new equations extrapolated from the width of megalodon's teeth to make the improved estimates. The paper's lead author, Victor Perez, developed the revised methodology while he was a doctoral student at the Florida Museum of Natural History. He got the idea while teaching students, noticing a range of discrepancies in the results they were getting.
Students were supposed to calculate the size of megalodon based on the ancient fish's similarities to the modern great white shark. They utilized the commonly accepted method of linking the height of a shark's tooth to its total body length. As the press release from the Florida Museum of Natural History expounds, this method involves locating the anatomical position of a tooth in the shark's jaw, measuring the tooth "from the tip of the crown to the line where root and crown meet," and using that number in an appropriate equation.
But while carrying out calculations in this way, some of Perez's students thought the shark would have been just 40 feet long, while others were calculating 148 feet. Teeth located toward the back of the mouth were yielding the largest estimates.
"I was going around, checking, like, did you use the wrong equation? Did you forget to convert your units?" said Perez, currently the assistant curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum in Maryland. "But it very quickly became clear that it was not the students that had made the error. It was simply that the equations were not as accurate as we had predicted."
Found in North Carolina, these 46 fossils are the most complete set of megalodon teeth ever excavated.Credit: Jeff Gage/Florida Museum
The new approach
Perez's math exercise demonstrated that the equations in use since 2002 were generating different size estimates for the same shark based on which tooth was being measured. Because megalodon teeth are most often found as standalone fossils, Perez focused on a nearly complete set of teeth donated by a fossil collector to design a new approach.
Perez also had help from Teddy Badaut, an avocational paleontologist in France, who suggested using tooth width instead of height, which would be proportional to the length of its body. Another collaborator on the revised method was Ronny Maik Leder, then a postdoctoral researcher at the Florida Museum, who aided in the development of the new set of equations.
The research team analyzed the widths of fossil teeth that came from 11 individual sharks of five species, which included megalodon and modern great white sharks, and created a model that connects how wide a tooth was to the size of the jaw for each species.
"I was quite surprised that indeed no one had thought of this before," shared Leder, who is now director of the Natural History Museum in Leipzig, Germany. "The simple beauty of this method must have been too obvious to be seen. Our model was much more stable than previous approaches. This collaboration was a wonderful example of why working with amateur and hobby paleontologists is so important."
Why use teeth?
In general, almost nothing of the super-shark survived to this day, other than a few vertebrae and a large number of big teeth. The megalodon's skeleton was made of lightweight cartilage that decomposed after death. But teeth, with enamel that preserves very well, are "probably the most structurally stable thing in living organisms," Perez said. Considering that megalodons lost thousands of teeth during a lifetime, these are the best resources we have in trying to figure out information about these long-gone giants.
Researchers suggest megalodon's large jaws were very thick, made for grabbing prey and breaking its bones, exerting a bite force of up to 108,500 to 182,200 newtons.
Megalodon tooth compared to two great white shark teeth. Credit: Brocken Inaglory / Wikimedia.
Limitations of the new model
While the new model is better than previous methods, it's still far from perfect in precisely figuring out the sizes of animals which lived so long ago and left behind few if any full remains. Because individual sharks come in a variety of sizes, Perez warned that even their new estimates have an error range of about 10 feet when it comes to the largest animals.
Other ambiguities may affect the results, such as the width of the megalodon's jaw and the size of the gaps between its teeth, neither of which are accurately known. "There's still more that could be done, but that would probably require finding a complete skeleton at this point," Perez pointed out.
How did the megalodon go extinct?
Environmental changes that led to fluctuations in sea levels and disturbed ecosystems in the oceans likely led to the demise of these enormous ancient sharks. They were just too big to be sustained by diminishing food resources, says the ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research.
A 2018 study suggested that a supernova 2.6 million years ago hit Earth's atmosphere with so much cosmic energy that it resulted in climate change. The cosmic rays that included particles called muons might have caused a mass extinction of giant ocean animals ("the megafauna") that included the megalodon by causing mutations and cancer.
Scientists, led by Adrian Melott, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of Kansas, estimated that "the cancer rate would go up about 50 percent for something the size of a human — and the bigger you are, the worse it is. For an elephant or a whale, the radiation dose goes way up," as he explained in a press release.
A simple trick allowed marine biologists to prove a long-held suspicion.
- It's long been suspected that sharks navigate the oceans using Earth's magnetic field.
- Sharks are, however, difficult to experiment with.
- Using magnetism, marine biologists figured out a clever way to fool sharks into thinking they're somewhere that they're not.
For some time, scientists have suspected that sharks belong among the growing number of animals known to navigate using Earth's magnetic field. Testing anything with a shark, though, requires some care.
The key was selecting the right candidate. Keller and his colleagues chose the bonnethead shark, Sphyrna tiburo, a small critter that summers at Turkey Point Shoal off the coast of the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory with which Keller is affiliated.
Bonnetheads elsewhere have been known to complete 620-mile roundtrip migrations. As the lab's Dean Grubbs puts it, "That's not bad for a shark that is only two to three feet long. The question is how do they find their way back to that same estuary year after year." There's a report of a great white shark migrating between two locations, one in South Africa and another in Australia, year after year.
The research is published in Current Biology.
Keller and his team rounded up 20 local juvenile bonnetheads and transported them into a holding tank at the marine lab. For the tests, the researchers simulated three real-world magnetic fields. As the various magnetic fields were activated, the sharks' movements were captured by GoPro cameras and their average swimming orientations calculated by software.
The first simulation, serving as a control, mimicked the magnetic field of the nearby shoal from which the sharks had been captured. When this field was activated, the sharks essentially acted like they were "home," just swimming around as they do.
A second field was the magnetic equivalent of a location 600 kilometers south of the lab within the Gulf of Mexico. When this field was activated, the sharks, apparently mistaking themselves for being far south in the Gulf, began swimming northward toward the shoal.
The opposite occurred with a field standing in for a location in continental North America 600 km north of their home shoal — the sharks began swimming southward.
"For 50 years," says Keller, "scientists have hypothesized that sharks use the magnetic field as a navigational aid. This theory has been so popular because sharks, skates, and rays have been shown to be very sensitive to magnetic fields. They have also been trained to react to unique geomagnetic signatures, so we know they are capable of detecting and reacting to variation in the magnetic field."
His team's experiments confirm what's long been suspected, Keller says: "Sharks use map-like information from the geomagnetic field as a navigational aid. This ability is useful for navigation and possibly maintaining population structure."
Sharks fear killer whales. How does this impact the ecosystems they share?
- A new study finds that sharks will flee areas they met orcas in for up to a year.
- Killer whales are known to eat sharks, but it is unknown if the sharks are fleeing because they know that too.
- The discovery will change our understanding of how marine ecosystems evolve.
Orcas, also known as "killer whales," are pretty cool. They're usually friendly despite their nickname, and are in an elite club of animals with no natural predators. With a range that spans the world and a coloring reminiscent of an equally popular but much less capable land animal, their image permeates pop culture.
But a new study published in Scientific Reports offers another reason to be impressed by these majestic creatures; they are so intimidating to ocean life that even great white sharks flee in terror before them.
The true apex predator
The study, titled "Killer whales redistribute white shark foraging pressure on seals," results from years of investigations into the movements and behavior of 165 tagged great white sharks, observations and records of killer whale movements, and information on seal populations off the coast of California. They also looked to previous descriptions of shark and whale interactions to give context to their findings.
The sharks immediately turned tail and fled in every time they crossed paths with orcas. They'd also stay away from that place long afterward. Only one observed shark dared venture back to where it had just encountered the whales, and it didn't stick around. Most of the sharks merely fled a bit further up the coastline, while others went much further out to sea to avoid the whales.
Why are they doing this?
Orcas have been known to eat great whites. The remains of the sharks are a grotesque sight to behold and are always missing their livers, no matter how much else remains or is missing. If the orcas have discovered a source of Chianti to pair with them or not remains unknown at this time.
However, we don't currently know if the sharks are fleeing because they understand that risk, because they knew the orcas would fight them for the same food supply, because whales look big and scary to them, or some combination of the three.
Before this gets too frightening, there are no known cases of wild orcas killing humans, and only a few examples of injuries being caused by these interactions. Orcas kept in tiny boxes for long periods can be a bit more violent, but that's another story.
Anything that makes sharks flee in terror will have an impact on the ecosystem. In this case, elephant seals benefit.
Observations of seal populations show a decline in predation events after orcas that can last for an entire year. While orcas occasionally snack on elephant seals, they stick to fish most of the time. It's a boon for the seals in areas the sharks leave, though the seals in the places they flee to might not see it that way. The findings of this study will inform our understanding of seal population fluctuations.
As lead author Salvador Jorgensen explains, the study also demonstrates that "food chains are not always linear. So-called lateral interactions between top predators are fairly well known on land but are much harder to document in the ocean. And because this one happens so infrequently, it may take us a while longer to fully understand the dynamics."
For those wondering how much longer it may take to reach that understanding, this study relied on decades of data on shark, whale, and seal populations in addition to the recently collected information. While demonstrating the value of long-term datasets and the long-term importance of minor interactions is great for science, the impatient may be disappointed at the slow pace of progress.
But the most important take away of this study might be the obvious one:
Never made an orca angry, unless you're tougher than a great white shark.
Nuclear weapons, whale sharks, and how to use both to make eco-tourism more sustainable.
- Scientists have finally determined the age of whale sharks using radioactive elements from bomb tests.
- Using the new data, the age range of the animals' bones has now been determined.
- The findings will help conservationists better maintain whale shark populations.
Majestic whale sharks, the gentle giants of the shark family.
Weighing in at 9 tons (20,000 pounds) and typically growing to around 10 meters (32 feet) long, the whale shark is the largest living species of fish. Despite the name, it is not a whale, though it is the size of one. Like many kinds of whales, it filter feeds on plankton.
Many things about the whale shark have remained unknown to science; how long they can live, their mortality rate, and how exactly to determine the age of a specimen from its remains was chief among them. However, these questions are now a little closer to being settled. In a study recently published in Frontiers in Marine Science, scientists explain how they were able to date the bones of two whale sharks who met their fate earlier than they may have expected.
Like trees, whale sharks' bones have growth rings. Scientists have known about these rings for a while, but how quickly the rings grow has been unknown. It is difficult to use them to estimate the age of a shark if you aren't sure how much time each ring represents.
A whale shark vertebra from Pakistan, in cross section, showing 50 growth bands
Image: © Paul Fanning, Pakistan node of the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation
This is where carbon-14 comes in. As a result of nuclear bomb tests during the Cold War, large quantities of carbon-14 were put into the oceans. The isotope slowly made its way up the food web and into the bodies of larger animals. Knowing the yearly changes in the amount of carbon-14 in the oceans due to bomb testing, scientists merely had to compare that data with the changes seen in the sharks' bones.
"We found that one growth ring was definitely deposited every year," said Dr. Mark Meekan of the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Perth, a co-lead on the study. "This is very important, because if you over- or under-estimate growth rates you will inevitably end up with a management strategy that doesn't work, and you'll see the population crash." This means the sharks used in this study were around 35 and 50 years old at the time of their deaths.
Working forward from there, the scientists were able conclude that the animals may have an age range of 100-150 years. "Earlier modelling studies have suggested that the largest whale sharks may live as long as 100 years," Dr. Meekan explained in a statement. "However, although our understanding of the movements, behaviour, connectivity and distribution of whale sharks have improved dramatically over the last 10 years, basic life history traits such as age, longevity and mortality remain largely unknown. Our study shows that adult sharks can indeed attain great age and that long lifespans are probably a feature of the species. Now we have another piece of the jigsaw added."
Whale sharks are an interesting species that many eco-tourists want to see. Conservation efforts for them rely on having accurate data on their longevity, mortality rate, and the age of specific animals. This information will help those managing ocean preserves keep the population stable for future generations to enjoy.
The relatively quick evolution of nine unusual shark species has scientists intrigued.
- Living off Australia and New Guinea are at least nine species of walking sharks.
- Using fins as legs, they prowl coral reefs at low tide.
- The sharks are small, don't be frightened.
Natural selection takes time. According to the fossil record, sharks, for example, have been essentially the same for hundreds of millions of years. But something's up lately, and by "lately" we mean the last nine million years. Sharks off of Australia have learned to walk. Not Great Whites, fortunately. Small sharks that feed on coral reefs. Cute sharks, actually.
Scientists have known for some time that five such shark species exist, but new research nearly doubles that number to nine. The new information comes from a 12-year study from an an international team of scientists from University of Queensland (UQ), Conservation International, CSIRO, the Florida Museum of Natural History, and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences and Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries published in Marine and Freshwater Research.
Don't mess with success
Over the last 400 million years, only about 1,200 shark species have emerged. "We see animals from 180 million years ago with exactly the same teeth," Gavin Naylor of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida tells National Geographic. While it's true they're not the most prolific reproducers, and have a long life span, that's still plenty of time for useful mutations to arise. On the other hand, if it ain't broke, don't fix it — Earth and the oceans may change, but as predators, sharks do just fine as they are. Even if, as Naylor says of sixgill sharks, they "seem stuck back in time."
Walking to dinner
The walking sharks, or "epaulette sharks," live in coastal waters off northern Australia and the island of New Guinea. They prowl coral reefs when the tide goes out, walking through shallow water on their pectoral fins in the front and pelvic fins in the back, on the hunt for crabs, shrimp, small fish. They're adept at wriggling their way into tight nooks to find food, too. "At less than a meter long on average," says Christine Dudgeon of UQ, "walking sharks present no threat to people, but their ability to withstand low oxygen environments and walk on their fins gives them a remarkable edge over their prey of small crustaceans and mollusks." Says Dudgeon, "During low tides, they became the top predator on the reef."
The abilities of the small sharks — they're less than three feet in length — definitely put them in a class of their own, says Dudgeon: "These unique features are not shared with their closest relatives the bamboo sharks or more distant relatives in the carpet shark order including wobbegongs and whale sharks."
Though the five epaulette species don't look much alike, varying in markings and color, their DNA identified them as family. Says Dudgeon, "We estimated the connection between the species based on comparisons between their mitochondrial DNA which is passed down through the maternal lineage. This DNA codes for the mitochondria which are the parts of cells that transform oxygen and nutrients from food into energy for cells."
What's the hurry?
The researchers theorize that a few factors may have accelerated the epaulets' evolution. First off, they keep to themselves in their own separate region, with extensive inbreeding perhaps speeding up the rate of mutation. "Data suggests the new species evolved after the sharks moved away from their original population, became genetically isolated in new areas and developed into new species," explains Dudgeon. "They may have moved by swimming or walking on their fins, but it's also possible they 'hitched' a ride on reefs moving westward across the top of New Guinea, about two million years ago."
Another possible factor are the ever-changing reefs themselves. They're continually in flux as oceans change and as corals live and die, with rising and falling sea levels, as well as changing currents and temperatures. The epaulettes' success depends on adapting quickly to a very dynamic environment, about which Naylor says, "It's the shark equivalent of the Galápagos, where you can see shark evolution in action."
Beachgoers needn't fear for their tootsies just yet, but just wait another few million years, and who knows?