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In Search of ‘The Meg’: Does a giant prehistoric shark still exist?

In 1975 Steven Spielberg tapped into our primal fear of ‘what lies beneath’ in his aquatic horror masterpiece Jaws, with the movie’s primary antagonist being a great white shark of enormous proportions. While Jaws was certainly not the first story to harness the unseen terror of the vasty deep, Spielberg’s film set the template for a plethora of ‘monster’ movies of a similar vein – perhaps none moreso than 2018’s The Meg, which copied a number of the master director’s seminal cinematography pretty much shot-for-shot in telling a bigger (though certainly not better) version of the same tale of a rogue giant shark – but substituting a prehistoric megalodon to one-up the huge great white of Jaws (megalodon are thought to have grown to a maximum of around 18–20 meters/60-65 feet in length).

The box office success of The Meg, and its 2023 sequel Meg 2: The Trench, have made megalodon virtually a household word in recent years. But in cryptozoological circles, the idea that the megalodon might have survived its supposed extinction and lived on into modern times has actually been a topic of serious discussion for many decades.

Interestingly, as Edward Guimont points out in his article “The Megalodon: A monster of the new mythology“, the survival of the giant shark is one of few cryptozoological ideas that comes wholly from modern science, rather than ancient mythologies. While megalodon teeth have been discovered and collected for thousands of years by cultures across the world, they were generally never attributed to a monster-sized shark (ancient or modern).

It wasn’t until 1959, when zoologist Wladimir Tschernezky of Queen Mary College analysed megalodon teeth recovered by the pioneering oceanographic expedition of the HMS Challenger (1872-1876), that the modern survival of the Meg really became seriously debated.

In 1873, Challenger recovered fossilised megalodon teeth from the South Pacific, the first recovered in the open ocean… [Tschernezky] argued (erroneously, as later seen) that the accumulation of manganese dioxide on its surface indicated that one had to have been deposited within the last 11,000 years, while another was given an age of 24,000 years. However, these views have more recently been debunked, with megalodon extinction occurring over two million years ago at the absolute latest.

Tschernezky’s 1959 claim that megalodons still existed as of 9000 BCE was followed by the 1963 book Sharks and Rays of Australian Seas, a posthumous publication by ichthyologist David George Stead. Stead recounted a story told to him in 1918 by fishermen in Port Stephens, New South Wales, of an encounter with a fully white shark in the 115-300 foot range, which Stead argued was a living megalodon. That this account came from Stead was notable as he held a PhD in biology, had founded the Wildlife Preservation Society of Australia, and had debunked an earlier supposed sea monster sighting in Sydney Harbor in 1907. The Stead account formed the backbone of cryptozoological claims for the continued existence of the megalodon, and after the book’s publication, multiple reports of giant shark sightings in the Pacific from the 1920s and 1930s were retroactively associated with relict megalodons.

It’s worth noting that Tschernezky was not just a disinterested zoologist: he was also a cryptozoologist who had previously studied the yeti and related it to the extinct ape Gigantopithecus – a similar case of modern cryptid sightings being explained via the presence of a supposedly extinct creature (sometimes referred to in cryptozoology as the ‘prehistoric survivor paradigm’, or PSP).

Is it possible that megalodon still swims the oceans of the world? That’s the question Tyler Greenfield seeks to answer in a recent article published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration titled “Of Megalodons and Men: Reassessing the ‘Modern Survival’ of Otodus megalodon“. Greenfield looks at the dating of supposed ‘out-of-time’ megalodon teeth, and critically reviews alleged sightings of the Meg using a scoring system that assessed physical and contextual characteristics.

Firstly, on the dating of the recovered teeth, Greenfield notes:

A 1970 rebuttal by marine biologist Georgii M. Belyaev and paleontologist Leonid S. Glickman pointed out several factors which completely disprove Tschernezky’s methods and results. First, Belyaev and Glickman noted that radium dating of manganese nodules is inaccurate and leads to calculated accumulation rates 20–30 times faster (and ages 20–30 times younger) than more accurate ionium-thorium dating. Second, they observed that the dentine roots and cores of the Challenger teeth had entirely decayed, leaving only the enameloid crowns, before the deposition of MnO2 began. Third, they recognized the spotty coverage and varying thicknesses of MnO2 on each tooth, which shows that deposition stopped and resumed multiple times. These features are seen in other fossilized shark teeth recovered from the ocean bottom.

The age of the Challenger teeth must be determined with alternative approaches. Belyaev and Glickman found that O. megalodon teeth are regularly accompanied by two other species of extinct sharks, the ancestral great white Carcharodon hastalis and the hooked megatooth Parotodus benedenii. They were restricted to the Miocene–Pliocene between 23–2.6 million years ago and serve as index fossils in this case. The shark teeth gathered by the Challenger that are described and illustrated in its official report contain C. hastalis and P. benedenii. They were obtained at Station 281 and surrounding sites in the South Pacific, confirming that these localities are Mio-Pliocene.

Further confirmation comes from two O. megalodon teeth which were dredged by the German research ship RV Sonne in 2007 in the same region. These were dated to 18 million (early Miocene) and 6 million years ago (late Miocene) using strontium dating. Finally, the fact that all confidently-dated O. megalodon teeth are Mio-Pliocene should erase any doubt about the age of the Challenger specimens.

Greenfield then goes on to detail the most famed (alleged) sightings of megalodon, looking at the primary sources and investigating the circumstances using other means where possible (e.g. contemporaneous newspapers). He then scores and tabulates each of the cases, considering whether the sightings are most likely to be genuine, or either hoaxes or misidentifications (e.g. basking shark, whale shark or great white shark).

In three of the four cases, Greenfield comes to the conclusion that the sightings are most likely hoaxes, while the other was likely a misidentified whale shark. In short, Greenfield says that the results “should dispel the myth that O. megalodon has been witnessed by humans”.

Overall, Greenfield concludes, “when subjected to scrutiny, the putative evidence for O. megalodon in the present day does not hold up.”

Some cryptozoological enthusiasts will no doubt take issue with Greenfield’s conclusion, but even so I’d recommend a read of the article purely for its survey of the history of ‘The Meg’ in scientific and cryptozoological circles, and also its growing presence in popular culture. Maybe it’s finally safe to go back in the water after all.

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