Megalodons, the Ocean’s Most Ferocious Prehistoric Predators, Raised Their Young in Nurseries

The fossils shed light on how these sharks were raised and what led to their ultimate demise

An illustration of a megalodon chasing two whales. The shark is several times larger than the measly looking whales, which are swimming away from the shark's open, toothy mouth.
This discovery offers a new theory to how the world's most ferocious predator went extinct more than 3 million years ago. Virginia Museum of Natural History via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 3.0

Millions of years ago, monstrously sized sharks named megalodons dominated the ocean. These giants grew larger than modern day humpback whales, casually snacked on animals like dolphins and seals, had the strongest bite force of any creature to ever exist—yes, including T. rex. But despite being fierce predators, a new study published last week in the journal Biology Letters suggests that megalodons were pretty good parents and raised their young in nurseries, reports Mindy Weisberger for Live Science.

Nurseries provide a safe haven for baby sharks to grow before they depart to take on the great blue sea. They are typically found in warm, shallow waters, such as coral reefs and mangroves, that offer an abundance of food. Nurseries also shield baby sharks from predators and protect them as they learn to hunt, reports Melissa Cristina Márquez for Forbes. And this behavior didn't die out with the megalodons—some modern-day shark species, like great whites and catsharks, also raise their young in nurseries.

"I just find it fascinating that even what many call the ‘biggest and baddest shark of all time’ had to spend the first few years of its life growing up in a special location before it could dominate the oceans itself," Phillip Sternes, a shark researcher at University of California, Riverside, who was not involved in the study, tells Forbes.

In this new study, a team of scientists analyzed a set of 25 megalodon teeth collected around northeastern Spain. The teeth were much too small to belong to the fully grown giants, so the scientists figured that the teeth must have belonged to juveniles, reports Lucy Hicks for Science. Fossil evidence also suggests that millions of years ago, the same region had shallow shorelines, warm water and flourishing marine life, which would have made it a perfect place for baby sharks to thrive. Given the collection of baby teeth and the geography of the area, the scientists determined that a megalodon nursery must have existed there, reports Eleonore Hughes for Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Armed with new information about megalodon shark nurseries, the scientists analyzed nearly 500 more megalodon teeth collected from eight different spots around the world to figure out where other nurseries could have existed. They identified four more potential nursery sites—two in the United States and two in Panama—ranging in age from 3.6 million years old to 16 million years old.

In 2010, a different team, including Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute scientists, discovered a megalodon nursery in Panama from 10 million years ago. At the time, the team wasn't sure if megalodon nurseries were widespread or a random occurrence. This new study adds substantial evidence that baby megalodons were raised in nurseries, Science reports.

This discovery also offers a new theory to how the world's most ferocious predator went extinct more than 3 million years ago, which remains a pervasive mystery. They know that megalodons thrived during a period of warm temperatures that lasted for millions of years. But as the climate cooled about 5 million years ago, it could have reduced the availability of suitable nurseries for the sharks to raise their young. And without good nurseries, juveniles wouldn't have survived, which could have helped drive the species to extinction, reports AFP.

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