Updated: Jul 26
They were utterly magnificent... enormous, sleek marine predators, lurking in the deep, armed with row upon row of gigantic sharp teeth. Reaching whopping sizes of 16 - 18 metres from nose to tail, Megalodon (Otodus megalodon aka Carcharocles megalodon) was the largest marine apex predator to ever live! But they are now extinct. Or are they? One of the most the questions I receive most often is whether the Meg could still be out there somewhere. So why is this myth so common now? Where has it come from? And how can we be truly certain that Megalodon is indeed extinct?
For decades it has been widely accepted that the megalodon went extinct some 2.6 - 3.5 million years ago, but in recent years a slew of conspiracy theorists and alternative thinkers have been questioning whether the Megalodon is truly extinct (Pimiento & Clements, 2014; Pimiento et al, 2016; Guimont et al, 2021).
Now, don't get me wrong, I actually applaud these people for questioning the information they receive and for having the guts to not just blindly accept everything they are told as gospel. However, the problem with this myth is that this opinion is not based in any kind of evidence. On the contrary, the scientific evidence clearly shows us that Megalodon is extinct.
Instead this idea has been spawned by misleading 'mockumentaries', like Shark Week's "Megalodon - The Monster Shark Lives" (2013). These fake documentaries are misleading because they were presented on a platform with some previous scientific credibility and rather than introduce them as fun monster movies, they were marketed as genuine documentaries with 'real scientists' and 'genuine footage'. Sadly, what the unsuspecting public do not necessarily realise is that these 'experts' were either played by actors or the interviews with legitimate scientists were edited to allow statements to be taken out of context in order to fit the narrative. In fact, several scientists spoke out after the fact, to proclaim that they did not make the statements shown and they were mislead about what kind of show they were signing up for. Also analysis has been shown that any images that 'prove' the existance of Megalodon have been doctored and the video included in these mockumentaries is all CGI (Guimont et al, 2021).
Do Some Fossils Prove Megaldons were Alive a Few Thousand Years ago?
One piece of 'evidence' that is often referenced as proof that scientists are wrong about when Megalodon went extinct, is the existence of fossils which show the Meg lived as little as 9,000 years ago. This assertion is based on one finding of Megalodon tooth fossils in the Pacific in the 1950s. You could be forgiven for this confusion because these fossils were actually analysed incorrectly (via a method known as manganese oxide dating) and so their age estimates were completely wrong! The assertions that Megalodon lived so recently has since been disproven and in fact, more modern techniques have dated these teeth to somewhere between 23 and 5 million years old (Boessenecker et al, 2019; Guimont et al, 2021).
"DOESN'T THIS JUST PROVE THAT SCIENTISTS CAN BE WRONG!?", I hear you cry. Well yes, it does. Scientists do not have all the answers - we are not God. Science is based on learning from those who have come before us - building on their work, and honing and advancing their methods, so that we are ever-improving. So yes, mistakes can be made, but one error does not outweigh hundreds of other, legitimate accurate findings about the extinction of Megalodon.
Did a Megalodon Eat a Tagged Great White Shark Recently?
Another incident that disseminated the 'Megalodon lives' myth was a rumour spread by the news media that research scientists studying great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) in Australia had recorded one of their animals being eaten by a Meg (Lynch, 2013).
These scientists had equipped great white sharks with electronic tags. One of these tags - from a three metre long female named Shark Alpha - was washed up on a beach. When the researchers analysed the data they were surprised to find that the tag had recorded a sudden change of course, followed by an incredible deep-dive to 579 metres depth, accompanied by a sudden increase in temperature, similar to what is seen when a tag has been ingested. The scientists concluded that a larger animal must have eaten their subject and swallowed the tag (Lynch, 2013).
The news media ran with the idea that a mysterious 'sea monster' had 'devoured' this shark and concluded that it must have been a Megalodon. This simply was not the case. The scientists even came out and publicly stated that their tagged shark was in fact eaten by either an orca (Orcinus orca) or a larger, cannibal great white, as is known to happen some times, but the idea that this is proof of Meg's existance has stuck (Lynch, 2013).
Could Megalodons Still be Living in the Deep Oceans?
A very common argument for why Megalodon may still exist, is that they could still be living in unfathomable depths of the oceans, like the Mariana Trench. I can completely understand this idea because it is true that these regions have remained mysterious to us until recently, when technoloigcal advances have allowed us to explore further. However, it is simply impossible that Megalodon could currently be lurking in the deep oceans.
Analysing which habitats around the world that we find fossils in has shown that Megalodon favoured temperate and tropical regions, and they did not stray into cold waters, like the Artic or Antarctic. This suggests that, like many other species of sharks (and human beings, in fact), Megalodons had a thermal tolerance and they could not survive in especially cold areas. In fact, paleontoloists think that global climate cooling may have been one of the reasons that the Meg went extinct. Therefore, it is impossible that the Meg could be living in deep regions of the ocean like the Mariana Trench, where temperatures are consistently as low as 1°C (Pimiento & Clements, 2014; Pimiento et al, 2016).
Whatsmore, the Megalodon predominantly lived in very productive coastal regions, predating on large mammals, like whales and dolphins, or other sharks. If Meg is living in the deep ocean today, it would mean they would have had to have undergone a significant dietary shift, to target cephalopods and deep-sea fishes. It also seems unlikely that these habitats could harbour enough of these creatures to be able to support a population of such enormous apex predatory sharks (Boessenecker et al, 2019; McCormack et al, 2022).
Is the Ocean so Big that we Just Don't See Megalodons?
Another very commonly-used argument as to why the Megalodon could still be alive today, is that the oceans are so vast and under-explored that they just simply evade detection. This is a dangerous myth because it has some basis in fact, but this is a gross misunderstanding... Yes, the oceans are huge, yes, there is so much we do not yet know about many marine creatures and yes, we do discover new species every single year, but this does not mean that a gargantuan predator like the Meg would be able to go unnoticed. An apex predator like the Meg has a huge impact on the ecosystem and the environment, that we simply do not see in our oceans today (Cooper et al, 2022).
Whatsmore, with all our international shipping, oil drilling and mining, naval operations, marine recreation and scientific exploration, how could we possibly not see the massive beasty itself? Sightings of whales, whilst not an every day occurance for most of us, are common enough. An animal as huge as Megalodon would surely be spotted at some point wouldn't it? Yet every 'sighting' of a Megalodon has been proven to be a different species of shark - often basking sharks (Cetorhinus maximus).
Similarly, indirect shark sightings are also common. We often see great white shark bites on seals or whales and people find shark teeth all the time. The fossil record, whilst understandably patchy, is actually fairly comprehensive for megatooth sharks like Megalodon. Yet we do not see any fossils (and no fresh teeth) beyond their extinction 2.6 - 3.5 million years ago. So why do we not see some of these clues from Megalodon if they are still alive? (Pimiento & Clements, 2014; Pimiento et al, 2016; McCormack et al, 2022).
Trust me, I agree that it would be completely awesome if Megs were still around and I for one would love to see one, but they are, sadly, as dead as a dodo. All the scientific evidence is there to prove that the Megalodon is no more and we cannot (or should not!) use this Argument of Ignorance as evidence that there is some crazy, global conspiracy going on to cover up the existence of the Meg (Guimont et al, 2021)
To learn more you can check out How Mega was Megalodon?
Boessenecker RW, Ehret DJ, Long DJ, Churchill M, Martin E & Boessenecker SJ (2019). The Early Pliocene extinction of the mega-toothed shark Otodus megalodon: a view from the eastern North Pacific. PeerJ, 7, e6088. Access online.
Cooper JA, Pimiento C, Ferrón HG (2020). Body dimensions of the extinct giant shark Otodus megalodon: a 2D reconstruction. Scientific Reports, 10, 14596. Access online.
Cooper JA, Hutchinson JR, Bernvi DC, Cliff G, Wilson RP, Dicken ML, Menzel J, Wroe S, Pirlo J & Pimiento, C. (2022). The extinct shark Otodus megalodon was a transoceanic superpredator: Inferences from 3D modeling. Science Advances, 8:33. Access online.
Guimont E (2021). The Megalodon: A Monster of the New Mythology. M/C Journal, 24:5.
Lynch M [Director] (2013). The Search for the Ocean's Super Predator. Ocean Super Predator Films.
McCormack J, Griffiths ML, Kim SL, Shimada K, Karnes M, Maisch H, Pederzani S, Bourgon N, Jaouen K, Becker MA, Jöns N, Sisma-Ventura G, Straube N, Pollerspöck J, Hublin J-J, Eagle RA & Tütken T (2022). Trophic position of Otodus megalodon and great white sharks through time revealed by zinc isotopes. Nature Communications, 13:1, 2980.
Pimiento C & Clements CF (2014). When did Carcharocles megalodon become extinct? A new analysis of the fossil record. PloS one, 9:10, e111086. Access online.
Pimiento C, MacFadden BJ, Clements CF, Varela S, Jaramillo C, Velez‐Juarbe J, & Silliman BR (2016). Geographical distribution patterns of Carcharocles megalodon over time reveal clues about extinction mechanisms. Journal of Biogeography, 43:8, 1645-1655. Access online.