Does Megalodon Still Live?

We will probably never know for sure why Megalodon became extinct. But we can probably be grateful that it did: a 52-foot (16-metre) version of the White Shark with jaws large enough to engulf a rhino would almost certainly make recreational swimming or pleasure boating a LOT less enjoyable. A number of scientifically untenable - but enormously entertaining - novels have been published, exploring just this possibility.

The giant Mega-Tooth Shark (Carcharocles megalodon) is reconstructed here as a scaled-up White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) and in 'hot pursuit' of Allodesmus, an early sea lion-like pinniped.  Recent evidence strongly suggests that megalodon is not closely related to the modern White Shark and it is my suspicion that it probably didn't look much like it, either.  But, barring an actual fresh specimen turning up, we'll never know for sure.

Megalodon is the toothy stuff of which legends are made. There are those who want desperately to believe that somewhere, perhaps in the deep ocean, Megalodon still lives. There is absolutely no scientific evidence to support such beliefs. But this hasn't stopped a small yet vociferous group of True Believers from conjuring up their own evidence. Unfortunately for them, most of this 'evidence' doesn't hold scientific water:
 

Megalodon Lives!

Megalodon is Gone.

The Coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) was thought to be extinct for more than 60 million years until a live specimen was captured in 1938. We now know that there is a small but definitely surviving population of these ancient fish in very deep waters off eastern Africa and another was recently discovered off Indonesia. Who's to say that Megalodon does not also survive? It is true that coelacanths were believed to have died out long ago, but just because one species thought to be extinct turned up alive and well doesn't necessarily mean that Megalodon survives too.
Less than 5% of the deep-sea has been explored, and even less than that sampled biologically. Yet we know that sharks live at least as deep as 12,000 feet (3,660 metres) and Sperm Whales (Physeter macrocephalus) are believed to dive to 10,000 feet (3,050 metres) in search of squid. If there's enough food down there for 60-foot (18-metre) whales, there is probably enough to support Megalodon Although very little abyssal life has been sampled, the deep-sea is a very difficult environment demanding numerous significant specializations. Amount of food in the deep-sea is not the issue. Megalodon seems to have been limited to warm, shallow seas near coastlines and there is no evidence it had any specializations that would have enabled it to survive the intense cold of the deep-sea.
Based on the average rate of deposition of manganese dioxide around nuclei composed of fossil shark teeth, some have calculated that Megalodon may have lived as recently as 11,000 years ago, rather than died out 1.6 million years ago, as suggested by radiometric dating. In geological terms, that's yesterday.  True, but new evidence suggests that the rate of manganese dioxide deposition is highly variable, dependent upon (among other factors) regional and seasonal fluctuations in primary productivity by phytoplankton. Besides, even 11,000 years is almost certainly far longer than the generation time of Megalodon. Extinct is extinct, no matter how recent in geological terms.
New and unprecedented marine creatures are still being discovered, some of them quite large - like the 15-foot (4.5-metre) Megamouth Shark (Megachasma pelagios) discovered in November 1976. The discovery of new species - even large and spectacular ones like Megachasma - does not, of itself, imply that a particular species, Megalodon, will necessarily be re-discovered .
There have been numerous, consistent reports by credible witnesses of gigantic sharks - like the 100+-foot (30+-metre) ghostly whitish shark reported from Broughton Island, Australia, in 1918, which was seen by several experienced commercial crayfishermen. Eye witness accounts are notoriously unreliable and anecdotal evidence impossible to verify.  The sea and atmosphere can play tricks on even the most experienced mariner.  Multiple sightings of a well-publicized archetype - such as UFO's, Elvis, ape-men, sea serpents, or giant sharks - in no way verify that those reporting them witnessed a 'real' phenomenon, only that they could not identify what they saw as something prosaic and the closest identity that fits their recollections (often formed on the briefest of glimpses) happens to conform with one of these archetypes, which act as convenient templates for the indescribable.
A living Megalodon would likely be very heavy, powerful, and difficult to capture (either by accident or design) using conventional fishing gear. Thousands of nets, longlines, and harpoons are lost every year.  Lost fishing gear does not necessarily mean that Megalodon is the cause. Fishing gear gets lost for all kinds of prosaic reasons: fouled in boat props, hung up on rocks, coral, or bottom clutter, human error or carelessness. In addition, this 'argument' presupposes that Megalodon exists at all. One cannot catch what is not there to be caught.

Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But none of the foregoing 'arguments' changes the fact that no fresh Megalodon tooth has ever been collected. If Megalodon still exists, there can't be just one of them. A whole population of Megalodon would shed tens or hundreds of thousands of teeth every year. So, until someone produces a recently shed tooth - or better yet, a fresh carcass - it is probably best to consider Megalodon extinct.

There are those who would regard the extinction of Megalodon as a tragic loss, that our planet is somehow less wonderful for this great shark's passing. But I am not among them. If the history of life on Earth has taught us anything, it is that fundamentally species continually come and go. The sharks we have today from the wonderfully bizarre hammerheads (family Sphyrnidae) and tiny, glow-in-the-dark lanternsharks (family Etmopteridae) to the gigantic, plankton-grazing Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus) to the awesome splendor of the mighty Great White (Carcharodon carcharias) are plenty spectacular enough for me.

Fantasies can be harmless and a lot of fun, but those of us who can appreciate things as they really are can count ourselves among the very luckiest of people.

 
 

ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research
Text and illustrations R. Aidan Martin
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