How Did the Megalodon Go Extinct? 4 Surprising Theories

Written by Kristen Holder
Published: September 21, 2022
Image Credit Warpaint/Shutterstock.com
Share this post on:

The largest shark that ever lived on earth was the megalodon, and this giant measured almost 60 feet long while weighing over 100,000 lbs. The megalodon perused the ocean about 23 million years ago and disappeared about 2.6 million years ago.

Studying the megalodon and its demise is tricky since these sharks don’t have bones that fossilize. This means that the megalodon doesn’t leave behind much of a fossil record. Most of what we know about it comes from the information we can glean from the teeth.

How exactly did an apex predator as giant as the megalodon go extinct? It was most likely a combination of factors. We’ll go over surprising theories as we discuss some details about this massive extinct shark.

Theory 1: Climate Change Caused the Megalodon’s Extinction

Megalodon close-up
Climate change contributed to the megalodon’s extinction.

racksuz/Shutterstock.com

16,816 People Couldn't Ace This Quiz

Think You Can?

As climate change occurred around the time that the megalodon went extinct, the oceans were cooling as the Pleistocene Ice Age was starting. Sharks thrive in warmer waters, and most were unable to find suitable habitats for themselves when the earth changed. This is most likely the main reason that the megalodon went extinct.

We’re familiar with the term climate change, but in today’s world, it refers to a warming of the atmosphere that is affecting life on earth. The climate change that took place at the end of the megalodon’s reign was a result of massive cooling that took place on the planet.

This cooling caused both of the polar ice caps to expand which lowered sea levels. These lowered sea levels also contributed to a huge degradation of habitat that most likely aided in driving the megalodon to extinction. This theory does get cast into doubt by some because temperature fluctuations occurred regularly throughout the megalodon’s existence.

Theory 2: The Megalodon’s Prey Dwindled in Numbers

Minecraft Animal: Sea Turtle
Sea turtles and other prey dwindled in numbers around the time that the megalodon went extinct.

Climate change likely affected the megalodon both directly and indirectly. The cooling waters enacted by climate change also affected their prey by driving them into different regions and dwindling their numbers. About 35% of seabirds and 45% of sea turtles went extinct around the time that the megalodon was wiped off of the face of the earth.

It’s also possible that the megalodon was driven to extinction by orcas. Before orcas evolved and came onto the scene about 5-10 million years ago, it’s believed that megalodons relied on slow-moving whales as their primary food source. These whales disappeared around the same time that orcas showed up.

This loss of food plus competition may have caused the megalodon population to begin declining. While climate change was the final nail in their coffin, food insecurity likely set them up for extinction.

Theory 3: The Megalodon Became Prey

Great White Shark stalks diver
Great white sharks may have outcompeted the megalodon.

Martin Prochazkacz/Shutterstock.com

Prey was dwindling in the oceans due to the impacts of a changing planetary landscape. As a result, apex predators and other large carnivores began competing for the available food stocks. This caused confrontations between species that otherwise would not have interacted with each other.

Smaller carnivores around that time hunted in packs, so their newly overlapping territory with megalodons could have put the large shark on their menus. It’s also believed that great white sharks went after megalodons as well though they didn’t try to eat them since they don’t hunt in packs. Rather, they competed for the same food sources that were available to the megalodon.

Since great white sharks were smaller, they were more successful hunters who could have starved the megalodons to death. This also explains why two top predators that existed around the same time, the megalodon and great whites, didn’t meet the same fate. The great white shark is alive today because it was better at capturing prey than a lot of its contemporaries.

Theory 4: A Supernova May Have Caused the Megalodon’s Extinction

Megalodon facts - supernova
A supernova may have caused a type of cancer that killed the megalodon.

muratart/Shutterstock.com

Recently, it was proposed that a supernova may have led to the destruction of the megalodon. Around 2.6 million years ago, at almost the exact time as the disappearance of the megalodon, a massive supernova in the earth’s vicinity occurred.

At 150 light years away, this supernova was most likely devastating to our solar system. While our solar system isn’t even a light year in length, the almost incomprehensible amount of energy released by a supernova at the distance that this one occurred is more than enough to heavily affect the earth.

It is believed that this event may have been responsible for the death of one-third of the animals on earth. Marine life may have been especially affected because of a burst of radiation that probably swept across the planet.

This radiation may have stayed in the ocean for a generation which could have caused cancer in the megalodon. This cancer may have wiped out the species over time.  

Do Megalodons Still Exist Today?

No, the megalodon does not exist today. It is extinct. Over 80% of the ocean hasn’t been explored, and there are undoubtedly a lot of animals we have yet to discover. Most of these areas are at great depths, and it is highly unlikely that a shark as big as the megalodon could survive in these waters. That’s because, in their current state, they are too cold to sustain a shark as large as the megalodon, even in the deepest parts.

While the parts of the ocean that haven’t been explored are still somewhat of a mystery, it is possible to analyze them through technologies that do not require a descent into the exact area. As a consequence, an animal as large as the megalodon would not go undetected for this long.

Another observation that validates the extinction of the megalodon is the age of its teeth that have been found around the globe. If there was a megalodon still in existence, that presumes that its predecessors had to exist as well and that they would leave their teeth behind like the ancient megalodons. However, no megalodon teeth younger than 2.6 million years old have been discovered.

Megalodon (Carcharocles megalodon)
Megalodons are an extinct species of sharks that grew to more than 50 feet in length.
Warpaint/Shutterstock.com
Share this post on:
About the Author

I'm an animal lover with an eye for detail and a love of words. I enjoy delving into in-depth research on a variety of topics and AZ Animals is the perfect outlet.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.