When we think of the largest shark today, names like the great white or the whale shark come to mind. Both of these creatures are truly massive and are undoubtedly some of the largest animals in the ocean. The whale shark is the largest shark in the world, a feat achieved via its non-carnivorous diet. The great white is much smaller but is entirely predatory in its diet. Incredibly, there was an ancient predatory shark that was larger than both of them. Let’s discover: What did the largest shark ever eat to weigh the same as 4 school buses?
Megalodon, The Largest Shark to Have Ever Lived
As some may have already guessed, the largest shark to have ever lived is none other than megalodon. Megalodon isn’t just a big fish, but it is also totally carnivorous. Currently, the earth’s largest creatures are all filter feeders. This allows them to gather mass amounts of small food sources, enabling them to eat thousands of pounds a day. Whale sharks, blue whales, and humpback whales all rely on taking in water and filtering the plankton or krill into their stomachs while expunging the water.
What makes megalodon so amazing is that it wasn’t a filter feeder, but a pure carnivore. Although there are some large apex predators today, none of them really compare to the sea beast that was the megalodon. Sperm whales, orcas, and great white sharks are all pretty big, but none of them compare to the size and type of predator that megalodon was.
There are a few estimations as to the actual size the megalodon would have been. On average, megalodon would have been around 35 feet long, although the largest individuals would have exceeded 60 feet. The largest individuals would likely have weighed around 114 tons, or over 200,000 lbs (although this is a theoretical maximum). For a bit of reference, the average school bus weighs around 25,000 lbs, meaning that megalodon would have easily weighed as much as four school buses!
What Would such a Massive Shark Have Eaten?
The only comparable creatures in size today to megalodon are whales, with the sperm whale being the largest predatory whale in the world. Still, sperm whales generally reach 90,000 pounds at a max, meaning that megalodon would have needed more food than the largest predator currently alive.
The most common prey sources that megalodon would have eaten probably included whales, seals, and sea turtles. Since the megalodon was so large and was much more active (as most predators are), it would have needed a massive amount of calories. Although the exact species of whale and turtle weren’t the same back then as they are today, they are quite similar. The only real difference is that the whales were probably smaller than modern whales are. In fact, the extinction of megalodon and other whale-eating creatures probably spurred modern baleen (filter feeder) whales to experience a gigantism trend we see today!
The hunting style of megalodon would have been uniquely suited to its size. Where the great white (the largest predatory shark alive) is an ambush predator that attacks from below, megalodon likely used its size to its advantage. Instead of attacking the soft underbelly, it would simply attack and bite its prey, cracking its chest cavity and puncturing its vital organs. When you are that big and powerful, special attacks aren’t really that important anymore!
How Much Food did Megalodon Need?
With all that mass and energy expenditure, the megalodon needed an absurd amount of food to keep its engine running. Scientists estimate that a smaller to medium-sized megalodon would ultimately have needed around 98,175 calories a day, or about 50x that of a human’s daily needs. Another way to understand it is through food humans are familiar with. For reference, a single pound of ground beef (70% lean, 30% fat) has around 1,500 calories. An average megalodon would have needed to eat 65 lbs of meat a day just to maintain weight, while a larger individual might have needed something two to three times that.
Since megalodon didn’t eat every single day, like most sharks, it would have needed to feast in massive quantities in order to survive. This high level of caloric need would have greatly impacted the surrounding marine ecosystems, especially that of whales and other cetaceans.
What Other Creatures did Megalodon Compete With?
Megalodon was an apex predator, but it did have some competition from other large predators alive during the time. The most likely competition came from whale-eating toothed whales, especially Livyatan. These whales and toothed dolphins are known as macroraptorial sperm whales and squalodontidae, respectively.
Competition, as well as a change in the broader ecosystem and climate, were the likely factors that eventually caused the extinction of the megalodon. When whales started shifting toward the cooler waters around the poles, the competition became too much, and the megalodon slowly faded from existence. Still, its reputation as one of the most fearsome sea creatures to ever live remains!