MEGALODON: An ancient shark of mega proportions

VIJAY SHAH and SUNNY ATWAL

Every year around six people are killed by sharks and dozens more injured, often seriously. Feared for their aggression, speed, size and taste for human flesh, the shark has been the stuff of legends for thousands of years and more recently, have been the subject of Hollywood blockbusters. Forty years ago, cinemagoers queued up for popcorn, ready to be terrified by the protagonist of the Jaws films, a bloodthirsty great white who snacked on sunseekers visiting the beach of sleepy little Amity Island. 

On the 10th of August, 2018, a new movie resurrecting the familiar ‘shark-meets-human, shark-eats-human’ narrative and starring action hero Jason Statham and Chinese actor Bingbing Li, introduced us to a shark that very much made the dreaded great white immortalised in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws series, look like a piddling fairground goldfish in comparison. Swim forward the Megalodon, full name Carcharocles megalodon, but you can call it ‘Meg’.

 

Megalodon was the streamlined bone-crunching stuff of water-borne nightmares. From around 23 to two million years ago, these colossal fish were the apex predators of their day, dominating the world’s temperate and tropical seas, and were capable of literally biting whales and dolphins in half. Flipper’s arch nemesis on steroids.

Scientists believed that the Meg could reach a maximum of 18 metres (59 feet) in length from heavily-armed snout to the tip of its tail. The largest great white shark observed in our time was 6.1 metres (20 feet), half the size of the largest estimated Megalodon adults. Meg’s huge proportions meant it was at the top of the food chain millions of years ago, and it proved its role as ruler of the seas by chomping its way through other large underwater creatures such as prehistoric whales, giant sea turtles and seals. It may have also dined on other sharks as well. A human would have been a service station sandwich in comparison. It has been estimated that an adult Meg would have needed to eat a tonne of flesh a day just to stay alive.

No-one was around back then to have met Meg (and survived to tell the tale), but many believe the shark was a more robust and muscular version of today’s great whites, but with teeth five or six times bigger. Thousands of the Meg’s fossil teeth have been found nowadays measuring up to 180 mm (7.1 inches) diagonally. Meg, just like modern-day cousins, would have had hundreds of these saw-like teeth in its jaws, lined up in rows, which combined with the brute force of its mouth, meant the shark always won every fight it got into. Meg must have been a treat at the dentist’s too when it was asked to say ‘Aaah!’ for its checkup. Its jaw dimensions were 2.7 by 3.4 metres wide, meaning Meg could swallow two adult humans side by side, and still have room for dessert. In fact, Meg has been said to have been the most powerful predator that has ever existed, and had the dinosaurs got around at the same time,  the shark would have owned T-Rex and company like a bunch of soggy dinosaur-shaped breaded turkey pieces.

 

Megalodon’s modus operandi for getting dinner on the table involved attacking prey side on, using its strong jaws to literally sink its teeth into the prey’s heart and lungs, inflicting maximum fatal damage to vital organs. Medium-sized prey would usually rammed with great force, causing severe trauma, with the Meg then chomping through bone and flesh, as evidenced from bite marks etched into the bones of whales found by marine archaeologists. Larger whales were a particular target for when Meg decided to go full hangry meets sadistic. The shark was said to have immobilised such whales by severing their fins from their bodies or by simply ripping them apart. Once the whale was suitably disabled, the Meg would then sit down for supper.

Environmental changes, mainly in prey availability and sea temperatures, as well as increased competition from newer species of sharks, contributed to the eventual demise of the Meg. Some people have claimed that the super shark still persists to this day, hanging out in deep seas and trenches, with several YouTube videos claiming to show sightings of the prehistoric monster. However most scientists are in agreement that the Megalodon is definitely history, pointing out that due its preference for warmer seas, a surviving Meg would have been a very obvious one. That said though, other species of fish, such as its cousin the megamouth shark and also the coelacanth fish, were long considered to be extinct, but have managed to survive undetected for millions of years until recently. In 1918, an Australian naturalist, David Stead, wrote of an incident where a group of experienced and fearless fishermen in his country were terrorised by a white-coloured shark of between 35-90 metres in length which attacked their boats, trashed their fishing equipment and stole their catches. Despite spending many years on the high seas, the fishermen’s encounter with this mystery shark left them scared to continue working. While extremely unlikely, perhaps there could well be an undiscovered group of bloodthirsty Megs out there, far from human eyes, eating whale sushi undisturbed.

SOURCES:

“Megalodon” – Wikipedia/Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Megalodon

“Megalodon: the truth about the largest shark that ever lived” – Josh Davis, Natural History Museum (6 August 2018) http://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/megalodon–the-truth-about-the-largest-shark-that-ever-lived.html

“10 Killer Megalodon Shark Facts” – FossilEra https://www.fossilera.com/pages/megalodon

“Megalodon Sightings: Is the Megalodon Shark Still Alive?” – cryptid, Exemplore (19 August 2018) https://exemplore.com/cryptids/Is-the-Megalodon-Shark-Still-Alive

IMAGE CREDITS:

“File:VMNH megalodon.jpg” – Karen Carr via LeGenD, Wikimedia Commons (12 May 2010) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:VMNH_megalodon.jpg

“File:Carcharodon megalodon SI.jpg” – Mary Parrish, Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History via Materialscientist, Wikipedia (8 March 2017) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Carcharodon_megalodon_SI.jpg

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