This is one that I can really sink my teeth into!
It has all the elements of a great story — an unusual find, a link to the past, a creature of epic proportions, and did I mention colossal choppers?
It is hard not to get excited about the mammoth megalodon and even more difficult to deny its dental distinction.
A megalodon is an extinct species of shark that has left us, in the style of the Cheshire Cat, only with its toothy grin. That is because it was a cartilaginous species and, thus, left no skeleton in its closet or in the fossil record. However, occasionally those with enough luck and a good eye will find a tooth from one of these great creatures. Such was the good fortune of Grace Burton-Sundman, beachcomber extraordinaire, whose find last week would have given the Tooth Fairy nightmares.
It is not surprising that there are still such teeth to discover, when you consider that the megalodon had about 46 teeth per row and at least six rows of teeth. These rows are comparable to a conveyer belt; when one row was dull or the teeth had fallen out, the next row came up behind it. Thus, one single megalodon could have up to 276 teeth at any given time.
Megalodons lived more than two million years ago during the Cenozoic Era and were the kings of the oceans, a top predator that had little mercy for its prey. The word “megalodon” is Greek for “big tooth,” an apt name considering that one single tooth could be more than half a foot on the diagonal! And these teeth were powerful. In fact, they can claim the title of “most powerful bite of any animal that ever lived.”
The great white shark, the megalodon’s closest remaining relative, has a bite 10 times less powerful than the megalodon’s. For comparison, consider that the lion’s bite has 600 pounds of force, the great white shark’s 1.8 tons of force, and the megalodon delivered up to 18 tons of force in one crushing blow! It was thought to be able to crush the skull of a whale like a grape.
These creatures were the largest sharks that ever lived. Thought to be up to 70 feet in length and weighing 77 tons, they likely required 2,500 pounds of food per day. Prudently, they never bit off more than they could chew. It is believed that these ancient sharks initially chomped off the tail and fins of their prey (often whales and large fish) so they couldn’t get away, and then went in for the kill and the meal.
While it is hard to imagine this giant shark hanging around and chewing the fat in our waters, we know it did, through the dental detritus it left behind. And while the great whites cause a stir when seen, we can only imagine the effect the sight of a massive megalodon would have. Consider that the size of one of its teeth, next to our body, is comparable to the size that we would appear to be next to a grown megalodon. Scientists believe that megalodons would have been able to swallow humans whole. And, even at that, it wouldn’t be done eating for the day, not by a long shot.
Which is why it’s probably good that we are separated from them by several million years — those remarkable teeth are best appreciated as fossils on a beach.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.