Is The Megalodon Still Alive?

Author: Ashley Strack
The mighty Megalodon, was the largest macropredatory shark to ever swim the Earth’s oceans. Most estimates place the maximum size for this Miocene monster at roughly 60 feet in length. . A macropredatory shark, the Megalodon lived from a period of about 15 million to 3 million years ago, from the early Miocene period to the mid Pliocene period. Megalodon was a powerful carnivore that preyed upon smaller baleen whales, and was incredibly successful. Fossils of megalodon, most commonly its teeth, have been found all over the world, indicating a cosmopolitan range. For much of the Megalodons reign, its only competition was the macroraptorial sperm whale Livyatan melvillei, which occupied a similar territory and niche. Judging by the ubiquity of Megalodon remains, this did little to affect the megatooth shark’s success.

During the Miocene, sea levels were higher than the present, and North and South America had not yet collided to form the isthmus of Panama. Because the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were connected at the equator, there was an increased flow of warmer equatorial water globally. For a warm water predator like the Megalodon, this was a major boon. Warmer water and a convenient passage between the two largest oceans on Earth made this period extremely fortunate for marine life in general.

However, while the Miocene was an era of plenty, it was not meant to last. During the Pliocene, North and South America collided, blocking off the former Central American Seaway. This drastically altered the global ocean currents, dropping temperatures swiftly and dramatically. Seawater became frozen and consolidated at the poles, dropping sea levels globally, which limited the number and size of the coastal nurseries Megalodon used to safely give birth. Their prey, mid-sized baleen whales like Cetotherium, likewise adapted to the warm waters of the Miocene, went extinct or adapted to colder, polar waters where the Megalodon couldn’t follow. Concurrently, large toothed whales like the ancestors of the modern Orca had emerged, which swiftly overtook the niche that the now-isolated Megalodon had filled prior. Megalodon was soon isolated in what some call “islands of warm water”, but without their primary food supply, and facing predation at younger life stages from newly evolved predators, the dynasty of the megatooth shark eventually ended. The latest known Megalodon fossils come from approximately 3-2.5 million years ago.

Real Fossil Megalodon Teeth

But Does The Miocene Mysticete Muncher Still Live? …No. No It Does Not.

In spite of the abundance of evidence that indicates the extinction of the last of the megatooth sharks, there is still a small but vocal holdout of people who believe that the monster shark still lives. Proponents of this “theory” often resort to very flimsy-at-best evidence, logical fallacy, and even outright falsehoods to prop up this misguided belief.

One common argument made is the frequently cited fact that very little of the ocean has been mapped and charted, and that “we don’t know for sure” what might exist in the uncharted open ocean. This is a frustrating non-argument, and a logical fallacy at that. The argument being made is that because we can’t prove that there isn’t a megalodon undiscovered in the uncharted ocean, there in fact, must be one. In basic terms, because it's impossible to prove the nonexistence of something, the opposite must be true, according to theorists. The problem is that this “argument” can be extended beyond the megalodon to everything from fairy tale sea serpents to aliens to anything you really want it to fit. It doesn’t directly prove anything, it just serves to cast doubt on scientific consensus to onlookers who won’t look too deeply into the subject matter.

Another common argument points to large animals that took awhile to be discovered by scientists, such as the giant and colossal squid. However, these creatures have had their remains wash up on shore, have been caught in fishing vessels, and have been observed by sailors for decades, if not centuries beforehand. Despite their elusiveness, their existence was not in question, because tangible evidence of their existence had been known even before a full specimen had been observed and recorded by the scientific community.

Giant squid remains have frequently been found washed ashore despite them living in the ocean deep.
Giant squid remains have frequently been found washed ashore despite them living in the ocean deep.

Additionally, “Lazarus taxa” or “Living Fossil” species, such as the coelacanth, are often displayed as examples of supposed “extinct” species that proved to be alive and well. This “proof” only shows the debater’s lack of understanding of phylogeny and evolution. While the modern coelacanth is an astounding fish that superficially bears extreme resemblance to its ancient cretaceous ancestors, biologically it has undergone extensive adaptation, changing from a freshwater swamp fish to a deep coastal cave fish, and is in fact a separate genus and species from those ancestors. Even if the megalodon had adapted and evolved to suit a new environment (It hasn’t, more on that below), it would be an entirely different organism in the eyes of science, with a new name to describe its new lifestyle.

Basic Facts About How There Is No Way The Megalodon Is Still Alive

Megalodon fossil remains disappear from the fossil record approximately 2.5-3 million years ago. There is zero evidence in the fossil record of any species descended from megalodon, something that we should be seeing if in fact the megalodon had any living descendants. The only evidence we have ever discovered of megalodon’s existence have been fossils, which point to it being, at the youngest, 2.5-3 million years old.

The ecological niche the megalodon filled no longer truly exists in today’s oceans, and the next closest predatory niches are currently occupied by toothed whales and other sharks, of which we have an abundance of evidence of their existence and behavior.

The megalodon was a prolific, active, warm water macropredatory shark that fed on mid to large sized cetaceans. Today, toothed whales and sharks are the apex predators in the world’s oceans, and fill that niche very successfully. Apex predators are some of the most extensively studied species by biologists because of their effect on the ecosystems they live in. A massive predator like the megalodon would have dramatic effects on the environments in which they lived. The fact of the matter is that modern oceanic ecologies do not have the carrying capacity for a massive predator like the megalodon. The mid-sized, warm water cetaceans that it fed on are largely extinct, and their closest relatives have expanded in size and live in waters outside of the habitable range of the megalodon. The remaining warm coastal waters where a megalodon could find habitable do not have nearly the abundance of large prey animals necessary for a predator of its size to sustain itself on.

An adult Megalodon would have needed over a ton of food per day to sustain itself.
An adult Megalodon would have needed over a ton of food per day to sustain itself.

As stated previously, many megalodon theorists like to point at large, elusive ocean animals like giant squids and the similarly named megamouth sharks as examples of large animals that remained “hidden” from science for years. However, in these cases, evidence and sightings of the animal in question had existed for decades prior to their formal description by scientists. In the case of giant squids, their tentacles had been found washed up on shore, their beaks had been recovered from the stomachs of predators that had eaten them, and there had been records of beachings in places such as Newfoundland and New Zealand since the 19th century. Additionally, while quite large, giant and colossal squids are not apex predators. They are ambush predators with very low metabolisms, needing very little food to survive. A massive apex predator will shape its ecosystem, but it is clear that the biggest effect that giant squids have on their environment is by being the preferred prey of sperm whales. Similarly, the megamouth shark is quite large, but is a basket-feeding plankton eater that rarely surfaces during daylight hours. It primarily lives in deep water away from the coast, meaning that human contact would be exceptionally rare, and because of its planktivorous nature, environmental evidence of its existence would also be in short supply. In short, neither of these animals are comparable to a massive, macropredatory shark that fed on whales on a daily basis.

Megalodon was a coastal macropredatory shark. Even if by sheer coincidence humans had never come into contact with a successful, cosmopolitan shark that exceeds 50 feet in length, we most certainly would have encountered half-eaten whales and other larger marine organisms with tell-tale signs of a Megalodon attack. They would likely beach themselves accidentally on warm water beaches all over the world, we would see them eating whales regularly, and we would certainly come across their nurseries in shallow, warm oceans worldwide.

As stated previously, no megalodon fossils appear in the fossil record beyond the mid-Pliocene, 2.5-3 million years ago. After that, other sharks do appear, but they are species that are contiguous with species prior to the extinction of the megalodon. By contrast, there exist no specimens that show any descendancy from the Megalodon. Many megalodon theorists will respond to criticism of their beliefs by proposing that extant megalodon specimens may have evolved to become deep ocean predators, some even going so far as to claim that megalodon now makes its home in undersea trenches.

There is no evidence for this whatsoever. The megalodon was a specialized apex predator. In evolutionary biology, there is a saying. Evolution trends towards specialization, but specialists trend towards extinction. Scientifically what this saying means is that evolution favors specialists, organisms that evolve to become very good at a few things. However, when something major disrupts an environment, specialists are usually the first organisms to crash in population numbers, or go extinct entirely. This is because specialists have difficulties in adapting to sudden environmental changes, such as a global drop in ocean temperature and sudden loss of primary food sources, as an offhand example. It is highly unlikely that a specialized apex predator like the megalodon could have evolved into becoming a deep ocean predator, in the same way that it is highly unlikely that a population of african lions would quickly evolve into subzero-temperature adapted polar cats if they were dropped off at the south pole.

Direct Evidence For The Existence Of Living Megalodons, And Why All Of It Is Bunk

Physical evidence is scarce (shocking), but occasionally megalodon theorists will put forward some fossil or tooth with the claim that it represents much more recent megalodon activity than the 2.5 mya extinction age. For example, the supposed dating on the “New Caledonia teeth”. These are in fact real megalodon teeth, dredged up from the south Pacific near New Caledonia, but due to radiometric dating techniques now deemed invalid, they were incorrectly dated to 15-25 thousand years ago. The specific mineral fossilization they underwent also lent them the whitened appearance of true enamel, giving superficial credence to the idea that they were younger than they were. The actual age, when dated through modern radiometric dating techniques, was found to be between 15 million to 3.5 million years old.

No that is not a Megalodon in the photo but a large, but harmless Basking Shark
No that is not a Megalodon in the photo but a large, but harmless Basking Shark

Misidentification is another major contributor to supposed “sightings” of living megalodon specimens. Human beings tend to be very bad at making empirical judgements when they are overcome with fear, excitement, or other strong emotions. Couple this with the difficulty in measuring the scale of objects in the open ocean, and it becomes apparent why many basking sharks, whale sharks, and even particularly large great whites can be mistaken for an extinct megatooth. Without other objects for scale, many organisms appearing solitary in the open ocean will seem much larger than they are. Basking sharks and Whale sharks are already quite large to begin with, with the largest recorded specimens of each species being 40 feet (12.2m) and 61 feet (18.8m) respectively. With many humans having a learned fear of sharks from fear mongering media, such as sensationalist documentaries and schlocky shark attack movies, it becomes easy to be caught up in adrenaline and believe that these gentle giants are prehistoric monsters.

Speaking of misinformation, in recent years, supposed “scientific” communications outlets, such as the Discovery Channel, have whipped up something of a sensationalist frenzy regarding sharks. Of course, as time went on, it was only inevitable that this would include prehistoric sharks. Everything from doctored photos to fake documentaries with only the bare minimum disclaimers stating that they’re false or made for entertainment. Discovery Channel’s Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, and its sequel, Megalodon: The New Evidence, so-called “documentaries” that premiered in 2013 and 2014 as part of the channel’s yearly “Shark Week” programming block. These documentaries, or rather, mockumentaries as they were labeled in retrospect, drew some of the largest viewership in the programming block’s history, with 4.3 million viewers during its premiere. Following alleged marine biologists, the program covers a fictional investigation of a series of sightings and incidents, with the conclusion strongly implying that the extinct megalodon was responsible for both a gory beached whale featured in the program, as well as the disappearance of a fishing boat off of Cape Town in early 2013. This would be both fascinating and scientifically revolutionary… if any of it were true in the slightest. The “professionals” and “witnesses” were paid actors, the photo evidence was doctored, the beached whale with “megalodon bite marks” was entirely CGI, and the Cape Town fishing boat incident was entirely fabricated.

Additionally, when Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives first aired, there were no disclaimers indicating the fictional nature of its production, and the disclaimers that were there were half-hearted and misleading, framing their argument as “an ongoing debate” as opposed to fringe theorizing. Many “mockumentaries” exist which report in a similar manner on fictional events, people, or creatures, but also provide the due diligence of asserting that they are in fact, fictional. There are many debates on the ethics of truth in documentary production, and I’m not here to settle them. A less challenging statement, however, is that a scientific communications network like the Discovery Channel, which aims to spread scientific knowledge and literacy to the average person, should not be putting pure fiction on its airwaves with no disclaimers whatsoever.

A fake photo created for The Monster Shark Lives purporting to show a Megalodon shark next to a u-boat.
A fake photo created for The Monster Shark Lives purporting to show a Megalodon shark next to a u-boat.

As previously discussed, the Discovery Channel program Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives portrays a supposed picture of a megalodon next to U-boats from world war 2. The photo was later proven to be heavily doctored archival footage of real U-boats, but even ignoring that, the scale of objects and the megalodon in the photo are laughably out of line with current scientific analysis. There is nothing in the photo that tells us the distance the supposed megalodon is from the photographer, nor is there a recognizable, measurable object in the frame that can be referenced at that same distance to determine the length of the megalodon. In spite of this, the documentary purports that the length from the alleged specimen’s dorsal fin to its tailfin is a whopping 64 feet (19m)! A size like that approaches the upper estimates for the length of megalodon’s entire body.

Humans are also quite bad at identifying animals they are unfamiliar with. Decayed whale and basking shark carcasses that wash up on shore are mistaken for unidentified “monsters” previously unknown to science all the time. For example, in 1977, a Japanese fishing trawler dredged up a mysterious unidentifiable carcass. A picture was taken before it was tossed overboard, and brought to scientists for analysis. While many conspiracy theorists would have you believe that this “Zuiyo-maru carcass” was evidence of a surviving prehistoric plesiosaur of all things, the scientific community concluded handily that it was the carcass of a basking shark. The shark’s lower jaw and dorsal fins had rotted away, giving it the outward appearance of a long necked marine reptile. (As a fun fact, many cryptozoology enthusiasts refer to such hoaxes as “Globsters”, a portmanteau of Glob and Monster). The Zuiyo-maru carcass is not a unique case, as unidentified marine carcasses are presented to scientists all the time with fantastical stories claiming them to be everything from biblical sea serpents, fairy tale monsters, prehistoric reptiles, and yes, the mighty megalodon.

Where Is The Megalodon Then? Fossil Dig Sites Worldwide

So, the mighty megalodon, the mysticete muncher of the miocene, is now le mort. The science, that is, the real science behind this topic shows us that beyond a shadow of a doubt, the megatooth sharks died out in the Pliocene period, 2.5-3 million years ago. The water it swam in is colder than it would like, the mid-sized whales it relied upon for food went extinct, leaving it without a food source, and the ancestors of modern great white sharks and killer whales outcompeted it for what was left. The shallow, warm coasts it would create its nurseries in are now miles inland. The ocean no longer had room for a 50 foot megatooth shark, and to this day environmental conditions still wouldn’t be able to carry such a massive predator.

But, megalodon fossils are still found all over the world, and research is always being done on these incredible, fascinating creatures. I’m sure most people consider us lucky to be able to live in a world without massive marine predators living very close to the coast (Or unlucky, I suppose, if you wanted the megalodon theorists to be right).

Works Cited

  • Catalina Pimiento, Bruce J. MacFadden, Christopher Clements, Sara Varela, Carlos Jaramillo, Jorge Velez-Juarbe and Brian Silliman. Geographical distribution patterns of Carcharocles megalodon over time reveal clues about extinction mechanisms. March 30, 2016, Journal of Biogeography. doi: 10.1111/jbi.12754

  • Morgan, Gary S. "Whither the giant white shark?" 1994. Paleontology Topics. 2 (3): 1–2.

  • Discovery Channel defends dramatized shark special ‘Megalodon’

  • Ebersole, Jun A, and Dana J Ehret. “A new species of Cretalamna sensu stricto (Lamniformes, Otodontidae) from the Late Cretaceous (Santonian-Campanian) of Alabama, USA.” PeerJ vol. 6 e4229. 8 Jan. 2018, doi:10.7717/peerj.4229

  • Nilsson, Dan-Eric; Warrant, Eric J.; Johnsen, Sönke; Hanlon, Roger; Shashar, Nadav (2012). "A unique advantage for giant eyes in Giant Squid". Current Biology. 22 (8): 683–688. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.02.031

  • Extinct Megatoothed Shark May Have Been Warm-Blooded - Eos

  • Sea-Monster or Shark: An Alleged Plesiosaur Carcass

  • Liu, Shang Yin Vanson et al. “Genetic diversity and connectivity of the megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios).” PeerJ vol. 6 e4432. 5 Mar. 2018, doi:10.7717/peerj.4432