OK, so what if a giant prehistoric shark, thought to be extinct for about 2.5 million years, is actually still lurking in the depths of the ocean? That’s the premise of the new flick The Meg, which opens August 10 and pits massive Carcharocles megalodon against a grizzled and fearless deep-sea rescue diver, played by Jason Statham, and a handful of resourceful scientists.
The protagonists discover the sharks in a deep oceanic trench about 300 kilometers off the coast of China — a trench, the film suggests, that extends down more than 11,000 meters below the ocean surface. (That depth makes it even deeper than the Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep, the actual deepest known point in the ocean). Hydrothermal vents down in the trench supposedly keep those dark waters warm enough to support an ecosystem teeming with life. And — spoiler alert! — of course, the scientists’ investigation inadvertently helps megalodons escape from the depths. The giant living fossils head to the surface, where they terrorize shark fishermen and beachgoers a la Jaws.
But could a population of megalodons actually have survived down there? To explore what is and isn’t possible and what we still don’t know about sharks, Science News went to the movies with paleobiologist Meghan Balk of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., who studies the ancient predators.
Did megalodons ever actually get as big as they are in the movie? Extremely unlikely
The megalodon sharks of The Meg reach sizes of about 20 to 25 meters long, the film says — massive although just a tad smaller than the longest known blue whales. But estimates based on the size of fossil teeth suggest that even the largest known C. megalodon was much smaller, at up to 18 meters — “and that was the absolute largest,” Balk says. On average, C. megalodon tended to be around 10 meters long, she says, which still made them much bigger than the average great white shark, at around 5 to 6 meters long.
Would a megalodon otherwise look like the film version? Yes and no
The movie’s sharks aren’t entirely inaccurate representations, Balk says. These megalodons correctly have six gills — between five and seven is accurate for sharks in general, she says. And the shape of the dorsal fin is, appropriately, modeled after the great white shark, the closest modern relative to the ancient sharks. Also, a male meg in the film even has “claspers,”…
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