Otodus megalodon, the largest shark of all time, has captured the imagination of paleontologists and the public for decades. The scientific fascination is due to the enormity of its fossilized teeth. As large as human hands and toothed as kitchen knives, they were used to cut whales unlucky enough to cross his path.
Popular culture has given him fame. He has never caused such a stir as in the 2018 film Megalodon, which is followed this year by the sequel Megalodon 2: The Pit.
The adaptation of Steve Alten’s bestselling novel Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror tells the story of a group of scientists who discover a megalodon in the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean.
It is undeniable that the film is riddled with scientific inaccuracies. However, I can’t help but feel some appreciation. A ridiculous movie? Yes, but everyone involved is very aware of it, which makes it very entertaining.
In my professional opinion, if a future paleontologist makes new discoveries about the megalodon influenced by this movie, then it will have been worth it. I think so because, ultimately, it is my own story.
paleobiologist thanks to television
I discovered the megalodon on television, specifically in the BBC documentary series Sea Monsters (2003) in which zoologist Nigel Marven visits prehistoric seas. On his ship, Marven travels back in time to dive with ancient beasts.
So I was six years old. Now, twenty years later, I am a practicing paleobiologist specializing in fossil sharks, and my best-known work revolves around none other than the megalodon.
A reconstructed megalodon in a study was 16 meters long and weighed more than 61 tons. It was estimated that he could swim at about 1.4 meters per second.JJ Giraldo
Megalodón takes artistic license with the available scientific knowledge. For example, sharks are depicted at an exaggerated size of 27 meters (88 feet). However, the most recent scientific extrapolations from tooth sizes estimate a maximum size of 20 meters (65 ft) in length, still making them one of the largest predators to have ever lived.
Some believe that the megalodon’s appeal begins and ends with its massive size. Nothing is further from reality. For starters, this shark was everywhere. Their fossil teeth appear in geological formations on six continents dating to 20 million years ago during the Miocene and Pliocene epochs (from 23 million years ago to about 3 million years ago).
A ridiculous movie? Yes, but everyone involved is very aware of it, which makes it very entertaining.
Interestingly, some of those formations were shallow habitats where lots of tiny megalodon teeth have been found: telltale signs of nurseries where young were allowed to grow up with plenty of food and protection from predators. One of these deposits is the Gatun Formation of Panama, which is referenced in the film.
They devoured orcas in a few bites
Unraveling the predatory nature of the megalodon from the fossils is even more interesting.
Its huge teeth left nasty wounds on whales that fell victim to its enormous biting force, including baleen whales and even sperm whales.
Using 3D models from a spinal column of 140 vertebrae, researchers have calculated its tremendous stomach volume, suggesting that the megalodon could eat predators the size of today’s killer whales with just a few bites.
The upper tooth of a megalodon (right) dwarfs that of a great white shark.Harry Maisch/Florida Gulf Coast University
Recent chemical analyzes of the teeth have also produced fabulous results. The megalodon’s nitrogen isotope values are exceptionally high, indicating that it was higher up the food chain than any living marine predator. In short, the megalodon was the king of oceanic predators.
Extraordinary temperature control
The oxygen isotopes in the fossils demonstrate higher body temperatures than the surrounding environment. This indicates mesothermy, the ability to maintain elevated body temperatures that is only seen in a few species, such as great white sharks, mako sharks, and basking sharks.
Mesothermy improves swimming speed, which allowed the megalodon to travel faster and further, increasing its chances of finding prey. This active lifestyle would have forced the megalodon to eat more food, about 98,000 kilocalories per day, to justify its size. Thus, the loss of their coastal habitats and associated prey limited their food intake and possibly caused their extinction 3 million years ago.
Some cinematic inaccuracies
The movie Megalodon 2 alters things a bit. It shows a megalodon devouring a Tyrannosaurus rex. The shark first evolved more than 40 million years after the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct, so unfortunately this showdown between the iconic beasts would never have happened in reality. However, it is a nod to Steve Alten’s original novel, which also included a fantastic scene. So, you just have to take it as a great moment of cinematic absurdity.
The film also presents the megalodon as an animal that has survived to the present day. This is impossible because the fossil record shows that the demise of the megalodon apex predator had a cascading effect on the ecosystem. For example, it caused the expansion of white sharks and allowed whales to grow even larger because there were no longer giant sharks to fear.
It is impossible for the megalodon to have survived to this day.
Unfortunately, this type of representation in the media, and even more so in the cinema, can give rise to strange conspiracy theories according to which megalodons are still alive in some way. This is, of course, nonsense, but it’s not necessarily the film’s fault. Mockumentaries using actors as scientists are much more to blame than a simple Hollywood movie.
Would I like to see movies that accurately use all available science to describe such an extraordinary shark? Of course. But the entertainment is what it is.
Sharks continue to be portrayed negatively in the media, despite up to a third of today’s sharks being threatened with extinction.
So if Hollywood is going to keep portraying megalodons alive, I think the most interesting aspect of this fictional scenario has yet to be properly explored: would humans be much more dangerous to megalodons than they are to us? I think the answer is a resounding yes.
We kill up to 100 million sharks a year, and the largest are at particular risk.
This could be a powerful story to help explain the importance and vulnerability of today’s sharks to modern audiences, just as Megalodon 2: The Trench draws attention to the biggest shark of all time.
Jack Cooper is a PhD Researcher in Paleobiology at Swansea University.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
You can follow MATERIA on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, or sign up here to receive our weekly newsletter.
#Megalodon #truth #extinct #megashark