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Prehistoric shark nursery spawned giants

The breeding ground of the world's largest, prehistoric predator has been discovered in Panama.
University of Florida
/ Source: Discovery Channel

The breeding ground of the world's largest, prehistoric predator has been discovered in Panama.

A super-sized version of the modern great white shark, Megalodon (Charcharocles megalodon) is estimated to have been 50 feet long. It ruled as the undisputed top predator in the ocean until 1.5 million years ago, leaving six-inch-long teeth littered around the globe like disposable razors.

It's a rare find. Paleontologists have uncovered only one other putative nursery for the ferocious beasts in what is today South Carolina.

On the shores of the Caribbean Sea in Panama, researchers have found a stash of much smaller teeth, most between about a half-inch and three inches long.

Led by Catalina Pimiento of the University of Florida in Gainesville, the team compared the fossils to other C. megalodon teeth and determined the teeth belonged almost exclusively to juvenile sharks.

In both Panama and South Carolina, Megalodon lived in areas flooded by much higher ocean waters, which provided warm, shallow shelters for the ferocious beasts to spawn.

The South Carolina site is controversial, though. There is an assortment of both large and small Megalodon teeth as well as whale skulls, which may have been prey for adult sharks.

But Pimiento thinks it's unlikely that young sharks would've been feasting on whale at a tender age, even though these youngsters could be 20 feet long, similar in size to a full-grown Great White.

"Studies have shown that some shark species do not consume a lot food when young," she wrote in an email, referring to sharks living today. "Even when nursery areas provide ample resources for juvenile sharks being highly productive, some shark species select these habitats based more on predator avoidance trading-off against food consumption."

Pimiento presented the team's study last week at the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Bristol, United Kingdom.

The discovery highlights the importance of shark nurseries, both ancient and modern.

"These areas are and have been essential habitats for sharks' survival, and without them the animals would not be able to succeed," Pimiento said. "Now they are typically coastal zones where humans overfish and construct. So what this study is telling us is that these areas have been used by sharks for millions of years, and we need to preserve them so sharks can successfully reproduce and survive."

"Megalodon probably went extinct because it got too big, making it difficult to find something to eat," Albert Sanders of the Charleston Museum in South Carolina said. "Sometimes it's not practical to get that big."

He added: "But back then, there was no pressure from human beings. We don't even know what kind of damage we're doing to species diversity in the ocean today."