By Kerria Weaver
More than 23 million years ago, when the shores of the Atlantic Ocean were in what is now Robeson County, one of the largest ocean predators patrolled the seas to feast on whales and seal lions and other large fish.
Megalodons, large sharks that measured up to 65 feet – the length of two school buses – were common during the Cenozoic era when the North Carolina coast was as far west as Interstate 95.
The Robeson County History Museum has fossils to prove it: The museum in Lumberton has more than a dozen megalodon teeth on display, all of them found along the Lumber River. The teeth were donated by local collectors Douglass Judd, Paul Valenti and the late Richard Stephens.
“Everybody knows and is interested in the river, and it’s a big part of Lumberton’s history,” said Shep Oliver, president of the Rotary Club in Fairmont and a museum volunteer.
The teeth of megalodons, apex predators that lived until about 3.6 million years ago, are commonly found in the American Southeast, from Florida to Maryland. The largest megalodon teeth ever found were over 7 inches, according to reports.
The largest tooth on display at the Robeson County History Museum measures just shy of 5 inches.
To understand why these giant sharks once roamed southeastern North Carolina, you must look at the history of sea level change. The Atlantic Ocean started to form about 200 million years ago.
Climate change, fluctuations in sea level, ocean dynamics and the frequency of storms had an effect on coastal waters, resulting in flooding or the drainage of river valleys like the Lumber. Advancing or receding shore lines, evolving ecosystems and shifting barrier islands also played a role.
Dr. Robert W. Boessenecker, a professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, said in an email to the Border Belt Independent that a warmer climate and lack of a Northern Hemisphere ice cap existed until about 2 to 3 million years ago.
Some scientists believe that as temperatures cooled, organisms, including the prey of the megalodon, either went extinct or adapted to the temperatures and moved where the sharks could not follow. Some of the biggest predators, including the megalodon, went extinct as a result.
Another theory suggests that the megalodon’s closest living relative, the great white shark, killed them off.
According to Boessenecker, sea level changes and climate change had little to do with the extinction. One study suggested that ecological competition led to the megalodon’s demise.
Scientists “re-dated” the megalodon extinction in 2019, Boessenecker said, and their end about 3.5 million years ago coincided with the appearance of another major predator – the great white shark.
“By the time great whites make it worldwide, C. megalodon disappears shortly thereafter from the fossil record,” Boessenecker wrote.
Though the megalodon does not exist today, much of the information about them comes from looking at their teeth.
The megalodon, with up to 276 teeth, is believed to have eaten whales and large fish such as dolphins and humpback whales. It’s estimated that its jaws opened up to 11 feet wide, big enough to swallow two adult people standing side by side.
Oliver said the exhibit is a popular draw for local school field trips.
“We’ve had 150 grade school kids come through one afternoon, and the students really enjoy the shark teeth exhibit,” he said.
To see the megalodon teeth and other fossils at the Robeson County History Museum, you can visit from 10 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays and from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays. The museum is located at 101 S. Elm St., Lumberton.