Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Truth Behind the "Truth" Behind Megalodon

Today, the great white shark rules the seas and haunts our imaginations.  After the release of the 1975 movie "Jaws," the great white shark and other sharks were feared and loathed more than they already were, although much of this fear was unbiased.  Ever since Jaws, hundreds of books, movies, television programs, and more have all capitalized on the shark craze, producing everything from the fantastic Steve Irwin Crocodile Hunter specials to the recent TV movie Sharknado.  One of the most popular shark-related features in the media is Discovery Channels "Shark Week," an annual event that features a week of shark-related programs.  Although many of these programs, as is to be expected for television programs nowadays, push the limits of reality, I think that the premiere of this year's Shark Week went too far, and I'm not the only one who thinks that, either.

First off, let's meet the star of this program: megalodon.  Estimates of the size of megalodon have varied widely and wildly, with some older estimates as high as about 100 feet long.  Today, however, most scientists agree that the largest megalodon could grow to around 60 feet long.  Which is still pretty massive, given that most great white sharks don't exceed lengths of around 20 feet, and look at how much people are afraid of them!  megalodon would have easily been able to swallow the average human in one bite: just take a look at those reconstructed jaws, below!  Also, below that picture, make sure to check out the size of just one megalodon tooth.  Suffice it to say, this shark was one massive bruiser.  This shark WAS one massive bruiser.  Notice how I emphasized the "was?"  Well, that's because megalodon went extinct about two million years ago.
Pyg encounters a mid-sized megalodon tooth, graciously donated to my collection of fossils and things that I take to local schools by local paleontologist Wayne Itano
Megalodon sounds pretty awesome, right?  I mean, to be honest, it's one of those extinct animals that just doesn't need to be "sci-fied up," because it's already cool enough as is, on par with other animals such as Tyrannosaurus, Spinosaurus, and Utahraptor.  Well, just because it didn't NEED to be sci-fied up doesn't mean that television networks didn't do it anyways.  And this years Shark Week premiere was the culprit.  Discovery Channel aired a two hour "documentary" showing "biologists" on the hunt for a megalodon.  Today.  In the present.
One of those extinct animals that just doesn't need to be "Hollywoodized!"  Meet Stan, the resident Tyrannosaurus rex at the Morrison Natural History Museum!  You can see Pig seated in the bottom jaw for scale!  Yeah, this guy was huge.
We have no evidence to indicate that megalodon is alive and with us today, and the "evidence" included in the "documentary" was very clearly doctored.  For example, below is a picture of a whale that has supposedly been bitten in half by a megalodon:

And here is a photo "uncovered from Nazi archives" of a giant shark fin surfacing behind a pair of U-Boats:

The first picture just screams CG.  And the second one....really?  Nazi's? Very Indiana Jones-esque.  OK then, Discovery.

The "documentary" starts off with "found footage" of a "boat capsizing off the coast of South Africa and several people being eaten, but whose bodies were never recovered."  Already, this reeks of a typical television plot.  Especially given the fact that a quick Google search of this supposed incident, as well as any of the "biologists" in the "documentary," yields diddly-squat.  Apparently the prospect of a giant shark brutally attacking and destroying a fishing boat just wasn't exciting enough to make it to the news, despite the fact that every news story relating to sharks and shark attacks spreads like wildfire.  Perhaps the South African press was just busy that day?

People refute our naysaying by pointing out that "we know more about the surface of the moon than the ocean," and "the coelacanth (which you can learn more about by clicking HERE) and the giant squid were only discovered recently!"  Yeah, that's true.  But megalodon is very different from a giant cephalopod or a five or six foot long fish.  We are talking about an active, 60 foot long predator that's feeding on much, much bigger prey than the giant squid or coelacanth would.  The giant squid and coelacanth eat a lot of fish, and are considered to be primarily piscivorous.  The giant squid, although very large, is by no means at the top of its food chain, and is fed upon by the largest of the toothed whales, the 60 to 70 foot long sperm whale.  And two million years ago, megalodon would have made up the final link in this food chain, feeding on the 60 to 70 foot long sperm whale.

Am I saying that there is no possibility that more giant animals exist in the deepest depths of the ocean, just waiting to be discovered?  No, I most definitely am not.  I do, however, encourage you to consider the ecological resources that would be needed by such a massive animal.  With no evidence of mutilated whale carcasses that could be attributed to such a massive animal, and an equal amount of evidence from first-hand accounts....I think that the conclusion should speak for itself.

The biggest issue that I have with all of this is not that a television program was made that packages myths, untruths, and exaggerations: it was with the fact that they packaged it as a documentary, no quotations this time.  Discovery tried to balance out the fact that they blatantly made stuff up to appease some of their viewers by pointing out that they included disclaimers in the show.  Yeah, true, there were disclaimers: but click HERE to see how short and hazy these disclaimers really were.  The disclaimers read:

None of the institutions or agencies that appear in the film are affiliated with it in any way, nor have approved its contents. Though certain events and characters in this film have been dramatized, sightings of "Submarine" continue to this day. Megalodon was a real shark. Legends of giant sharks persist all over the world. There is still debate about what they might be.

Notice how they never really say that none of it was true.  When he gave a press release, the executive producer of Shark Week, Michael Sorensen, said that “With a whole week of Shark Week programming ahead of us, we wanted to explore the possibilities of megalodon.  It’s one of the most debated shark discussions of all time, can megalodon exist today? It’s Ultimate Shark Week fantasy. The stories have been out there for years and with 95 percent of the ocean unexplored, who really knows?”  The part that bugs me the very, very most about that statement is the line "It's one of the most debated shark discussions of all time."  It isn't, I promise you.  It really, really isn't.  I have never heard of any paleontologist who seriously believes that megalodon swims the oceans today.  There might be some paleontologists who won't discount the possibility, which is fine.  Science changes all the time.  But with a complete and total lack of evidence, no serious scientist will really debate that sort of thing.

There's many more issues that people have had with this presentation, varying from thousands of people on social media voicing their complaints, all the way to actor Wil Wheaton, who wrote about the megalodon fiasco on his blog, which you can read HERE.  Others, such as popular paleo writer Brian Switek, went to Twitter:

I do hope that this backlash will cause the people at Discovery, as well as at other television stations, to reconsider what they make into a television program, and consider the possibility that, just maybe, there's a significant chunk of people out there who don't want to be fed this garbage.  I do hope that this causes some changes in any future programming, and if we are all really lucky, this event might spawn a South Park episode.  You have to admit, it'd be pretty perfect.  Let's just cross our fingers, shall we?


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