This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Shark Week

The Meg

Jaws doesn’t own a monopoly on horror films with giant sharks. 1999’s Deep Blue Sea features a glorious death scene, where Samuel L. Jackson proselytizes in a way only he can, before being devoured by genetically modified makos. In 2013, SyFy introduced the world to the Sharknado universe, in which sharks emerge from tornados inside hurricanes.

Most shark films star familiar species, usually great whites and any others are usually those living today. In 2018, however, a killer shark flick decided all the other denizens of the deep were simply too tiny.

Cover photo for The Meg

In The Meg, contemporary sharks wouldn’t cut it. Looking at the image for the film above, it’s easy to believe the film simply invented a gargantuan shark or supersized a great white. While I have no doubt they took liberties with the sizing, the titular beast – a megalodon – actually existed.

One of the largest fish and most powerful predators ever to have graced Earth, the megalodon lived from about 26 million years ago to the relatively recent epoch of 3.6 million years ago. The megalodon inhabited the same waters as the great white and other still-extant sharks until it became extinct as the planet cooled during the Pliocene.

Though we now think of the great white as a monster, the megalodon made it look like a guppy in comparison. The largest great whites top out at 20 feet in length; the megalodon went more than triple that measurement. Paleontologists believe the upper bounds of the animal probably reached around 67 feet! Estimates for the weight range as high as 100 metric tons! The megalodon was so large that when people discovered teeth from the shark during the Renaissance they thought they were fossilized tongues of dragons or mythological snakes.

The "tiny" teeth are from great white sharks - photo by Kalan
A megalodon tooth with human hands for scale - photo by Lonfat

The name megalodon comes from the Ancient Greek words for “big” – mégas – and “tooth” – odoús. Has there ever been a more apt name for a creature?

Their teeth are key to understanding them in more ways than size. Mostly everything we know about megalodons we have extrapolated from their teeth. Sharks have cartilaginous skeletons and live in the ocean. This combination is rather poor for the preservation of fossilized structures. However, sharks also produce tens of thousands of teeth throughout their lifetimes. In the case of the megalodon, rather robust teeth. These chompers managed to survive the tides of time in decent numbers, even when the rest of the skeleton dissolved into the ether. A few snippets of their skeletons have survived, though, including vertebrae the size of dinner plates.

The megalodon would have been the apex predator of apex predators. Evidence persists of massive whale bones that bear cut marks from megalodon teeth. Picture a shark that could hunt down great whites and extremely large whales. Scientists believe the jaws of the meg were so large that they could inhale two humans in one bite.

A reconstruction of a megalodon jaw by Bashford Dean in 1909

The behemoth teeth and jaw came with behemoth biting power. Humans can produce 1,317 Newtons of force with a chomp. Great white sharks produce a bite somewhere in the range of 18,000 N. Researchers postulate that the megalodon would dwarf this measurement, likely able to provide over 150,000 Newtons of force!

For many decades, paleobiologists believed the megalodon likely looked like a bigger version of the great white. However, recent genetic studies appear to show the two species diverged on the evolutionary shark chart at an earlier point than previously understood. The megalodon was likely the last member of the family Otodontidae. While the two might still have looked similar to the untrained eye, experts believe the meg had a shorter nose and flatter jaw than the great white, in addition to longer pectoral fins.

In the film, instead of going extinct 3 million years ago, the megalodon somehow survived undetected in the deep, only to emerge to feast on tasty humans.

In reality, adult megalodons relied on tropical waters to maintain their massive food requirements. As the ocean temperatures cooled during the Pliocene, the food chain nearly collapsed. Scientists believe about one-third of all large marine animals perished during this timeframe.

The great white survived the tumult, leading eventually to its place among the pantheon of shark films during the 20th century. The megalodon had to wait for its time in the spotlight, though it now gets yearly attention during Shark Week, as some continually wonder if it somehow continues to live in the unexplored parts of the ocean.

Could the meg still be out there? Emma Bernard, of the Natural History Museum in London, writes, “No. It’s definitely not alive in the deep oceans, despite what the Discovery Channel has said in the past. If an animal as big as megalodon still lived in the oceans we would know about it.”

Further Reading and Exploration

Megalodon: the truth about the largest shark that ever lived – Natural History Museum, London

Megalodon – National Geographic Kids

Megalodon: Facts about the long-gone, giant shark – LiveScience

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