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MEGALODON


This article appeared in the September 1997 (Volume 3, Number 9) issue of
Fossil News - Journal of Amateur Paleontology ®

By: Steven A. Alter

Great White!!! There is a no more terrifying sound than these words ringing out from a lifeguard on the beach. By the time the surfers in the water hear this blood-curdling scream it may be too late. Great White sharks : the most fearsome and ferocious killing machines in the world today - eternal purveyors of death and mayhem - the source of millions of people's darkest nightmares - a meek goldfish......

A meek goldfish? That's right. While the modern Great White (Carcharodon carcharias) maybe the most terrifying hunter in the world today, it is in no way even half as frightening as the largest shark to ever swim the world's oceans, Carcharocles megalodon.

Carcharocles megalodon was by far the largest predator (land or sea) to have ever lived. The maximum length this shark reached has been a hotbed of debate ever since paleontologists learned that they could get more accomplished by disagreeing with one another. The truth of the matter is that we will probably never know for sure exactly how long the megalodon actually extended. The most widely accepted maximum size for the megalodon is a length of approximately 55-65 feet. One thing is for certain, however; the megalodon was at least two or three times larger than the Great White.

The reason there is no way to accurately measure the size of the megalodon is that often the only fossil evidence left behind is the teeth. Occasionally fossilized megalodon vertebrae are found, although this is extremely rare because shark vertebrae are made out of cartilage instead of bone. Cartilage is much more easily decomposed and is therefore less likely to fossilize. Megalodon teeth, however, can provide an excellent clue as to the massive size of the shark. Fossilized teeth from this shark have been found up to 7 1/4" in slant height and weighing more than a pound. Compare this to the largest Great White teeth (3" and weighing a couple of ounces) and it is easy to see how much larger the megalodon actually was. Fossilized megalodon teeth are models of efficiency. These huge teeth are lined with hundreds of tiny razor-sharp serrations which served to rip hapless victims to shreds. A couple of people were once observed holding some of these fossil teeth and arguing over the exact number of serrations........perhaps it is time to get a life.

Carcharocles megalodon began to evolve during the early/middle Miocene epoch (roughly 15-20 million years ago). This shark apparently evolved from several other species that branched off from the Mackerel (Otodus) shark family during the Eocene epoch (approximately 50 million years ago). The first shark to evolve from the Mackerel shark family was Carcharocles auriculatus. This was the first precursor to the megalodon. The auriculatus lived during the Eocene epoch. During the Oligocene epoch (24.5 - 37.5 million years ago), the auriculatus probably evolved into another species, Carcharocles angustidens. The only fossil evidence of this change again comes in the form of the teeth. Carcharocles auriculatus teeth had very large side cusps while Carcharocles angustidens teeth possessed much smaller side cusps and reached a larger size overall. Carcharocles angustidens probably eventually evolved into Carcharocles megalodon in the early Miocene epoch, losing the side cusps on the teeth and obtaining much larger sizes.

The megalodon thrived in the temperate waters during the Miocene and Pliocene epochs. Feeding on large marine dwellers such as the numerous whales, the megalodon undoubtedly ruled its kingdom. All good things must come to an end, however, and so did the megalodon's reign. The exact time the megalodon became extinct is uncertain, however the megalodon probably lasted until the middle of the Pliocene epoch (approximately 2.5 - 3 million years ago). Depending on which books you read today, you may be tempted to believe that this shark may still live in the deep, dark waters of the central Pacific. Of course this is highly unlikely.

The fossilized teeth of the megalodon are a highly regarded prize among fossil hunters today. While the smaller teeth (3 1/2" - 4 1/2") are not all that uncommon in some locals, the larger teeth (5" and over) are sought after with vigor. In addition to the relative rarity of these large teeth, it is uncommon to find them in pristine condition. 15 million years of Mother Nature is enough to destroy most of the fossil teeth that ever existed, and it is certainly enough to wear down the phenomenal natural features of most megalodon teeth. Occasionally, however, you can find a tooth that has withstood the test of time. Teeth that retain their original luster, enamel, and serrations are quite rare and are becoming increasingly more valuable.

Megalodon teeth come in different shapes and colors. The color of a tooth is determined solely by the color of the sediment in which it was buried while fossilizing. The tooth absorbs minerals from the surrounding sediment, and, consequently, becomes the same general color as the sediment. The color of a megalodon tooth has no bearing on its age. The most common color of megalodon teeth is a black root with gray enamel. This is the color of most of the megalodon teeth that come from the Southeastern United States. Of course, there are numerous exceptions and virtually any color tooth can and has been found. Phosphate pits especially seem to produce spectacularly colored megalodon teeth. Some of the most beautiful white, blue, orange, even red teeth have come from these areas. Unfortunately, these regions are becoming increasingly more difficult to hunt because of liability concerns and thoughtless past guests.

Carcharocles megalodon sharks were mighty big fish. They ruled the oceans for 20 million years and could swallow the modern Great White while yawning. The teeth they left behind have become treasures for fossil hunters all over the world who stare in amazement at their size wonder out loud, "How big was this thing?" If you want to enjoy the thrill of finding one of these massive teeth for yourself, hit the beach after a storm. Go ahead and wade out a bit. Don't worry, the megalodon is extinct...................right?

Copyright © 2001, Steven A. Alter, www.megalodonteeth.com
Please contact Steve prior to using this article for permission.
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