Diving into the Mouth of an Ancient Shark for the American Museum of Natural History

Working with scans of actual fossils, LaGuardia Studio partnered with the American Museum of Natural History to 3D print teeth for a life-size model of the prehistoric megalodon for the museum's Sharks exhibition, which opened in December 2021.

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lifesize model of a megalodon shark

EquipmentFortus 450mc 3D printer using ASA Natural filament


A Mouthful of Megalodon Teeth

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The megalodon—Otodus megalodon if you're formal—was one of the largest sharks ever. Based on the fossil record, megalodons could be as large as 15 to 18 meters in length, which is about three times the size of the largest recorded great white shark. Megalodon fossils have been dated as far back as 20 million years ago, and for 13 million years they were the top predator in Earth's prehistoric oceans.  

However, no complete megalodon skeleton has been discovered, meaning that the overall size of the shark is interpolated from one thing we do have: its teeth.

Teeth play such an important role in what is known about the megalodon that it's right there in the name. "Megalodon" means "large tooth." And they were large teeth, as much as seven inches long, serrated for eating meat (including prehistoric whales, no slouches in the size department), and aligned in multiple rows.

When the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) began planning an exhibition about sharks, it was obvious that the megalodon would play an important role. When Sharks opened in December 2021, a 27-foot-long, 10-foot-tall megalodon was the first thing greeting visitors to the simulated aquatic underworld. And the first thing one is likely to notice about the megalodon model is the teeth—teeth modeled and printed using the resources and expertise of LaGuardia Studio.

close-up of 3D printed megalodon teeth

Up Close: You wouldn't want this view in real life, but the exhibition gives you a chance to see just how impressive the mouth of the megalodon was. Photo: Keith Allison

Ancient Fossils, Modern Technology

Researchers believe the megalodon went extinct roughly 3.6 million years ago (unless you're watching Jason Statham in The Meg). A substantial cooling of the planet led to a mass extinction event that affected as much as one-third of large marine animals, including the megalodon, which could no longer support itself on the food supply available to it and which was more acclimated to warmer water.  

Like modern sharks, megalodon skeletons were composed of cartilage, so they didn't leave a lot behind. Soft tissue is rarely preserved as a fossil. However, teeth are made of much harder stuff. Sharks have multiple rows of teeth through which they cycle during their lifetime, sometimes as rapidly as every week to two weeks depending on their diet. This means they leave a lot of teeth behind. This is true now, and it was true millions of years ago. As a result, most of what is known about the megalodon comes from its teeth.

That means getting the teeth right is an important part of building an accurate model. Armed with detailed scans of actual fossilized megalodon teeth provided by the Museum, experts at LaGuardia Studio were able to create incredibly detailed replicas at the correct size. The scans were enlarged by 22 percent in order to fit the life-size display.  They were then printed on the Studio's Fortus 450mc using an ivory-colored ASA Natural filament. There are three rows, each containing 46 teeth. In total, the Studio printed 138 individual teeth. Once completed, the teeth were installed in multiple rows in the exhibition's star attraction.

Although the teeth, like the gaping mouth in which they were installed, are a fearsome sight, the Sharks exhibition stresses the overall importance of sharks to the global ecosystem and highlights the many myths that drastically exaggerate how dangerous they are to humans (reality: not very). These misconceptions fuel harmful actions which continue to threaten the global shark population.

close-up of 3D printed megalodon teeth

close-up of 3D printed megalodon teeth

For more information about the exhibition, see the AMNH's Sharks page.