The Mega-Low Down on the Megalodon

C. megalodon, whether you place it in the genus Carcharocles or Carcharodon is extinct.

Want.

Nothing would give me greater joy, reduce me to childhood giggling, and make me rush toward the nearest research vessel begging for a job than being able to say otherwise, but I can’t.  It’s deader than the Dodo and Disco.  There are theories why it died out, all of them intriguing, but none leave room for C. megalodon to swim in the world’s oceans.  Let’s take a deeper dive.

I used to believe in sea monsters.  From the Kraken to Nessie to the monsters sighted during the Golden Age of Sail, sometimes I would sit on the shore near my home and scan the horizon hoping to see the neck of a sea monster gracefully rise out of the sea, let out a mournful bellow like the creature from Ray Bradbury’s “The Fog Horn”, and then dip back into the sea.

One of my favorites was the sea monster sighted by the HMS Daedalus.  Here was a creature not glimpsed by some poor sailor, lost at sea and crazy with thirst.  This was a creature sighted by a Royal Navy frigate and the encounter analyzed by scientific minds through the skeptic’s lens of a ship’s captain.  It had to be true!

The HMS Daedalus and its’ sea serpent.

Who knows why people saw what they did?  Folie à plusieurs or shared delusions manifest through a belief engine.  Someone sees something.  Other people want to see it too.  Then they do see it.  You don’t want to be the only one NOT seeing it, do you?  Of course you see it.   And so a sea monster is born.

But it was a just a whale.  That’s the thing.  Most of the world’s Forteana, from UFOs to Bigfoot to star jelly, can be explained as natural phenomena misinterpreted or someone telling a tall tale.  As a kid, I believed in the Bermuda Triangle, and one day my father and I were walking home at night towards the coast, and we saw Kleig lights reflecting off the clouds over the ocean, and this was all the proof I needed for my Bermuda Triangle Unification Theory. UFOs were searching for Atlantean technology at the bottom of the sea, and somehow time warps were occurring.   But it was just Kleig lights.

Also not real.

Megalodon *WAS* real though.  For close to 21 million years it plied the seas in search of blubber and meat that only prehistoric whales could provide, and then, like so many animals and plants before it, it went extinct.  There’s lots of theories why, to me the most plausible is climate change.

The earth always undergoes climate change, and these changes are gradual or sudden, and most of the time, extremely traumatic.  Whole orders of flora and fauna can go extinct and it’s caused by everything from asteroids slamming into the planet (end of the Cretaceous) to plants colonizing the land (Ordovician period) to your car idling in the takeout lane at Jack in the Box (welcome to the Holocene, folks).

Most sharks are cold-blooded, but there are those that can regulate their body temperature to make their bodies warmer than the surrounding water. They still have a maximum limit to where they can go (there are no sharks in the Antarctic Ocean, and only 1 species makes its’ permanent home in the Arctic Ocean, the Greenland Shark).

Whales, however, like it all.  In the Northern Hemipshere, they calve in the warm waters of Caribbean, Hawaii, and Mexico, and then winter in the bitter cold waters of Alaska, Russia, and Northern Europe.  It’s assumed that prehistoric whales, by in large, moved Northward into colder waters during the end of the Pleistocene, and being endothermic mammals, adapted the new world.

Megalodon, even if it could regulate its’ body temperature like its’ presumed relatives (the mackerel sharks), probably couldn’t tolerate the whale’s new home, and died out because they could not obtain the same amounts of fat and protein in the warm tropical waters to sustain them. So in 2.6 million years BC, evolution said “so long” to C. megalodon.  Just a theory, to me it’s the one that makes the most sense.

But a creature like megalodon simply won’t fade away.  We found their teeth and thought to ourselves: “what kind of animal was this?”.  We saw the great white shark, and thought to ourselves “Good God, if this is a great white tooth, and this is a megalodon tooth…”  and in that thought burned the fire of scientific inquiry.

Art, being art, said “This animal is terrifying.  I better do something about this”, and so began tales of giant sharks facing off against humanity, challenging us at the zenith of our dominion.  We gobbled it up even if frankly, the work was somewhat… juvenile?  I love Steve Alten’s “Meg” series (especially the sheer insanity of the second book, “The Trench“) , but man, it ain’t Shakespeare.

Seriously, there’s a sub-plot involving Osama bin Laden, another involving incest, and lipleurodons evolving gills. It’s total popcorn.

And then along comes the Discovery Channel with “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives” and “Megalodon: The New Evidence”.  When I do my shark talks or set up my booth to sell shark poetry (and tiki mugs! and tshirts!), inevitably I’m asked about megalodon and if still exists, or I’m told how it DOES still exist.  Circling back to the beginning and young Klute’s belief in sea monsters, I get it.   It’s a big ocean, there have been relatively recent discoveries of big ocean fauna (from the colossal squid to the megamouth shark), and you’re being presented with “proof” by a reputable source, told that it’s real. Plus it touches on that primal sense of fear and discovery, a new monster, a new challenge… but it’s all a lie.  From Discovery Channel itself:

Goddammit, Discovery.

“Hey, you’re just a poet who happens to stumble across sharks once in a while! Why should I listen to you?”, you might be saying.  And that’s TOTALLY FAIR.  I am not a scientist. So would you listen to an actual scientist? From David Shiffman, shark scientist (via an article at “The Scuttlefish” – I encourage you to click the link and read the whole thing).

“I would have loved these Discovery Channel programs – if they were on the SyFy channel instead.”

Megalodon is gone, but there is an ocean of life out there full of wonders and terrors that haven’t yet been discovered in the sea, or in the fossil record, or in the necessary synthesis of art and science, and I urge any budding oceanographer, painter, marine biologist, filmmaker,  paleontologist, or yes, poet, to focus on that.

And if the lure of legend, of worlds past is too much, do what I do.  Go to the beach at sunset. Look out into the vastness of the sea.  Give yourselves the time to scan the horizon to look for the neck of a sea serpent, or listen for the drone of Flight 19 finally coming home, or the dorsal fin of megalodon cutting into the horizon.  They won’t be there – but know that in the moment you shift your gaze, the twilight of  imagination, you just missed them.

Now get back into the lab and into the field and save the Irrawaddy river dolphin, or figure out how scalloped hammerheads make their migrations, or discover how diatoms can be used as a new food source.

Fashion us a truth more interesting than legend.

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