A lesson in a Florida classroom inadvertently reshaped what scientists know about megalodons, the extinct prehistoric shark, and exactly how big they were.
Traditional science calculated any given megalodon to be anywhere between 50 to 60 feet long. These estimates were ultimately revised, however, when Victor Perez, a former doctoral student at the Florida Museum of Natural History, was teaching students how to extrapolate a megalodon’s size based on fossilized teeth samples.
Despite using the traditional formula popularized in 2002, Perez’s students were estimating shark sizes anywhere from 40 to 148 feet for the same shark.
“I was going around, checking, like, did you use the wrong equation? Did you forget to convert your units?” Perez, who is now the assistant curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum in Maryland, said. “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.”
Using megalodon teeth found in aquatic habitats has long been considered the most effective proxy to determine an individual shark’s size.
Simultaneously, this isn’t the most accurate way to gauge a megalodon’s size, since scientists would need to recreate exactly where that tooth was in the shark’s jaw.
Thanks to a sizable donation of fossil teeth from what was found to be the same megalodon shark, Perez was able to account for some variability.
After piloting the lesson on reconstructing a megalodon’s jaw in various elementary and high schools based on the collection of teeth, Perez began to notice wide distinctions in the estimate of shark size between students.
He then partnered with other researchers and took a different approach: modeling the megalodon’s jaw based on the width of the tooth, rather than the height.
The broader paleontologist community responded well to the new method.
“I was quite surprised that indeed no one had thought of this before,” said Ronny Maik Leder, who worked with Perez on the model. “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.”
This new method still carries a margin of error of around 10 feet when applied to particularly large samples. Still, Perez uses this example, now published in the journal Palaeontologia Electronica, as a way to demonstrate science as consistently evolving.
“Even though this potentially advances our understanding, we haven’t really settled the question of how big megalodon was. There’s still more that could be done, but that would probably require finding a complete skeleton at this point,” he said.