During Shark Week 2013, Discovery Network aired a very misleading documentary in its “Shark after Dark” series called Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives. The “documentary” led many panicked people around the globe to believe that the Megalodon is “huge and real,” prowling the planet’s waters ready to make you its next prey. Of course, the events portrayed in Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives are about as real as those shown in Sharknado, and outrage among scientists and public figures erupted.1 Wil Wheaton went as far as to say that Discovery “lied to its audience,” while marine biologist and self proclaimed “shark scientist” David Shiffman took to Twitter to allay people’s fear, proclaiming unequivocally that “#Megalodon is extinct.” Because Shark Week did Megalodon a huge injustice, we at Rice Catalyst are here to give you the real facts about the fascinating Megalodon, the monster shark that once lived.
Megalodon, whose name is derived from the Greek for “giant tooth,” was the apex predator of the seas for almost 20 million years, feeding on absolutely anything that had the misfortune of sharing its waters. It has been suggested by scientists that Megalodon was “arguably the most formidable carnivore to have ever existed.”2 In general, Megalodon was piscivorous, meaning that its diet consisted mainly of fish (giant fish, of course), but everything from sea lions to truly gargantuan sperm whales made up Megalodon’s diet. Great white sharks, formidable killing machines in their own right, were simply food for stronger, faster, and more brutal Megalodons. In tough times when food was scarce, Megalodon turned to cannibalism, eating its own kind to stay alive. The ocean 20 million years ago was a shark-eat-shark world, a Darwinian survival of the fittest scenario in overdrive.
Even more impressive than its feeding habits was the Megalodon’s anatomy. Because no true complete fossils of Megalodon exist, it's hard to know precisely just how big this creature got.3 The scientific consensus puts Megalodon at 68 feet long, bigger than modern day whale sharks.
To put Megalodon’s giant size in perspective, the green shark at the bottom of the figure above is the size of an average great white. Charts and figures can only go so far, however. To really grasp how titanic one of these creatures was, here is a picture of a megalodon tooth held by human hands.
How could a creature so powerful, so robust, and so savage go extinct? Like with many prehistoric beasts, the culprit was climate change. Around 2.6 million years ago, the time of Megalodon's extinction, the earth was undergoing a period of global cooling and glaciation. Dropping sea levels and cooling ocean temperatures adversely affected Megalodon, which needed warm water temperatures to thrive. At the same time, this cooling affected the prey that Megalodon hunted, such as baleen whales, many of which started to disappear at the same time. Habitat depletion and prey extinction together brought upon the end of the mighty Megalodon.
The ocean will forever be a mysterious place, and the uncharted depths are sure to hold sea life that mankind will not discover for many years, if ever. However, Megalodon almost certainly does not exist anymore, and any suggestion that the monster shark still prowls the waters is false.
Davidson, J. Discovery Channel Provokes Outrage with Fake Shark Week Documentary.http://entertainment.time.com/2013/08/07/discovery-channel-provokes-outrage-with-fake-shark-week-documentary/ (accessed 11/9/2016), Part of Time.
Wroe, S. et al. "Three-dimensional computer analysis of white shark jaw mechanics: how hard can a great white bite?" J. Zool. 2008, 1-7.
- Montgomery, J. How Megalodon Worked. http://animals.howstuffworks.com/extinct-animals/megalodon.htm (accessed 11/9/2016), Part of Howstuffworks.