The Meg

Science Behind the Fiction: The Meg's ancient dino shark (and how many Jason Stathams it could fit in its mouth at once)

Contributed by
Aug 8, 2018

Since the dawn of the human species, we've been on an all-out crusade to rid the world of anything and everything that poses us the smallest threat. And the truth is, before the advent of primitive technology, those threats were many, varied, and came red in tooth and claw. So, it's no surprise that, now, we choose to focus on the biggest and baddest of them all when we make movies about these prehistoric horrors returning from the depths of history to ravage humanity once again.

The best evidence we have regarding the predators that were likely a threat to early humans comes from fossil records and an examination of predators who pose a threat to modern primates. A famous hominid fossil of a three-year-old Australopithecus, dating back two to three million years ago, has puncture wounds in the eyes from a predatory bird similar to a modern African eagle. There were, of course, also predatory cats, snakes, wild dogs, bears, and other primates; the ancient world was a buffet and we were in regular rotation.

Average life expectancy of an individual has increased dramatically since our species first awoke under the sun, ushered along by the advantages of modern medicine and other ingenuities. Data suggests that about 25 percent of early hominids, early humans, and Neanderthals lived beyond the age of 40. Now, more than 80 percent of males in the United States can expect to live beyond the age of 65. Some data suggests that two-thirds of children born today can expect to reach the age of 80. In short, the average human being in the developed world has effectively more than doubled their life expectancy.

Take that, nature.

With all of this in mind, it's easy, perhaps, to take for granted the relatively comfortable world in which we live. Not so long ago, on the cosmic timescale, monsters roamed the earth and swam in its seas. And only by our collective efforts and not a little luck have we escaped their razor-sharp jaws.

Perhaps the most impressive of these, the largest known predator to have ever lived, is the Megalodon. A massive shark, reaching estimated lengths of more than 60 feet and weighing in at a colossal 60 tons, the Megalodon dwarfs most anything alive today. As a matter of comparison, the modern sperm whale bests the Megalodon in terms of length but comes in roughly 15 to 25 tons underweight.

Our fascination with prehistoric predators knows no bounds and has spawned a number of unsubstantiated claims that Megalodons persist to this day. Moreover, dreams and nightmares that these massive, prehistoric sharks are still swimming through the depths have inspired a number of science fiction films, including Megalodon (2002), Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus (2009), Jurassic Shark (2012), and many others.

As of 2018, this list includes the upcoming blockbuster The Meg, starring Jason Statham.

It's no mystery why these ancient predators fascinate us so. For most of our existence, we were at the mercy of monsters in the dark, those who found us in our caves, our high branches, and in the murky depths. That ancient anxiety lives on in modern humans, even after tens of thousands of years. In an attempt to face our deepest, most primal fears, let's examine what made the Meg so incredible — and so terrifying.

WHAT MAKES THE MEGALODON SPECIAL?

When it comes to massive, sea-faring sharks, the modern Great White is our closest analogy to the ancient beast the Megalodon. While the two species are not actually closely related, it's difficult to parse them when making a comparison. Great Whites are the largest and most beautifully terrifying of the modern sharks with a length of roughly 20 feet and weighing in at up to 5,000 pounds.

Of the roughly 100 shark attacks that happen each year, an estimated one-third to one-half can be attributed to great whites, though most are not fatal. It seems, to our great benefit, we're not very appetizing to the world's largest predatory fish.

As frightening as a Great White might be, the Megalodon makes Jaws and his ilk look like small fish by comparison. It's believed that Megalodons needed an average of 2,500 pounds of food per day and feasted on whales and other large oceanic life. In short, while the Great White is the terror of the modern seas, it would have been little more than a romantic dinner for two if encountered by the Meg.

With such an astounding appetite, it's difficult to imagine how a human being could attempt to stand up against this prehistoric monstrosity. In terms of the Megalodon's capacity for eating, your average action movie hero would be little more than an appetizer for the main course.

Coming in at five feet, 10 inches and 170 pounds, Jason Statham could waltz into the Meg's open maw (measuring upward of nine feet) without even bumping his head and nestle in with room for fourteen more men of the same size. When it came time for the Megalodon to snack, a Statham would have been the prehistoric equivalent of a microwaveable pizza roll — warm, delicious, and just a little bit crunchy.

Given its dominance over the warm, ancient seas, we're given cause to wonder what sent the Megalodon packing.

WHAT SENT THE MEG TO ITS WATERY GRAVE?

While the Megalodon is, without a doubt, the most impressive of shark species, its size may have been its downfall. In terms of long-term evolutionary survival, bigger isn't always better. Evolution, as we know, drives the bodily mechanisms of every species. It's clear that, at the time of its dominance, size was a beneficial adaptation. So what changed?

Catalina Pimiento of the University of Florida has studied Megalodons and has an idea of what might have driven them to extinction.

"Body size affects nearly every aspect of an organism's biology and ecology," Pimiento told LiveScience. "When you have a very large organism like [a] Megalodon, that can be very good or very bad."

In short, while size is a benefit to a hunting individual, making it less likely to suffer predation, it also requires a larger food source. As ecosystems change, the need for massive amounts of food can become a challenge for large populations (or, in this case, a singularly large organism).

Most of what we know about Megalodons is inferred. Sharks have a body comprised mostly of cartilage, meaning that the only common part found in the fossil record is their teeth and a few vertebrae. We've had to surmise most of our knowledge via comparison to living sharks. What we think we know about Megs, based on the location of their fossilized teeth, is that they preferred warmer waters. It isn't precisely known what did the Megalodon in but a change in oceanic ecosystems as a result of an ice age likely factored in. The species disappeared roughly 2.6 million years ago.

WHAT CHANCE IS THERE THAT THE MEG STILL LIVES?

It isn't unheard of for species previously believed to be extinct to suddenly turn up alive and well. These so-called Lazurus species seem to disappear from the face of the earth only to reappear later.

This line of thinking has caused some to believe that the Megalodon is alive and well in uncharted parts of the ocean. After all, more than 80 percent of our oceans are unexplored. Does that mean the Megalodon might be lurking somewhere in the hidden depths? The Meg posits it is.

But in reality, no, not really. It's incredibly unlikely, nigh on impossible, for the Meg to be hiding beyond the fringes of our knowledge.

There are a number of reasons to believe that the Megalodon is really and truly gone for good. While many parts of the secret lives of sharks are still a mystery to us, they leave plenty of signs to let us know they are there.

Not the least of these is a record of teeth. Sharks, unlike humans, shed and replace their teeth throughout their lifetimes. Depending on the species, a shark will have between five and 15 rows of replacement teeth growing behind the ones you might see in those last moments as you reconsider your surfing hobby.

Additionally, shark teeth don't have roots, meaning they fall out easily and litter the ocean floor, washing up on shores all over the world. If the Megalodon were alive today, we would expect to see its teeth washing up and being collected and made into necklaces for tourists with loose wallets. Instead, we don't see any Megalodon teeth dating after the 2.6 million-year extinction date.

And if that weren't enough, what we know about the Meg is that it lived in shallow, warm waters, not in the icy depths of the unexplored ocean (as The Meg suggests it currently does). If Megs were alive today, it's highly unlikely they could have survived this long without a verifiable sighting.

The Meg

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

While conspiracy groups like to think of these types of creatures as one-offs and loners somehow successfully hiding from the prying eyes of humanity, the truth is that any successful creature requires a breeding population in the thousands or millions. So, realistically we're not talking about one Megalodon sleuthing through the waters, eating scraps and hoarding its teeth. We're talking about tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands escaping our notice and, given their size and preferred environment, that just isn't likely.

While it might satiate our childlike wonder to see an ancient and massive creature breach the waters along our shores, the sad (or happy) truth is that the Megalodon reached its natural end millions of years before humans first stepped out of the trees.

The good news is you can satisfy that primal need to encounter incredible beasts when The Meg hits theaters on August 10.

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