On Saturday, Discovery Channel will air Megalodon: The New Evidence, a sequel to the 2013 “documentary” Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives. Both specials are about Carcharocles megalodon, the largest predatory shark of all time, and feature alleged “shocking new evidence” that these animals are not really extinct. (Spoiler alert: they’re extinct.)
Scientists estimate these sharks, the ancestors of the modern day mako shark, could grow larger than 50 feet long. They got their name (which means “mega tooth”) from their enormous teeth, each of which could be greater than six inches long. (A modern great white shark, in comparison, has teeth less than two inches long.) Megalodon’s bite force was greater than that of Tyrannosaurs rex. If these sharks were indeed still alive, it would be noteworthy and concerning for anyone who spends time in the ocean.
Though it appears convincing, the “evidence” presented in these Shark Week documentaries is not real. It consists of interviews with witnesses and experts who are actually actors, as well as photoshopped imagery. Both documentaries are completely fake, continuing a recent disturbing trend in educational television. In short, Shark Week is lying to you, and it isn’t the first time.
After 2013’s “documentary” aired, the Discovery Channel received strong criticism from scientists, media critics, and the business world. In response, Discovery issued a half-hearted and dishonest defense, with phrases like “there’s still debate” and “who really knows?” In reality, according to megalodon researcher Meghan Balk at the University of New Mexico, “there is no doubt in the scientific community that Megalodon is extinct.” These sharks lived approximately from the middle Miocene (~16 million years ago) to the early Pliocene (~1.5 million years ago), Balk told The Daily Beast.
There are a few ways that scientific experts know that megalodon is no longer alive. First and foremost, no one has ever seen one, and no evidence that they are still alive has ever been produced. Out of the countless megalodon tooth fossils that have been found around the world, none have been dated at less than 1.5 million years old. “Their fossil teeth are found until the Pliocene, with no fossil evidence beyond this time,” Catalina Pimiento, a megalodon researcher at the University of Florida, said. Some species of sharks can go through tens of thousands of teeth in their lifetime, which means that if these animals were still alive, someone would almost certainly have found a tooth younger than 1.5 million years old.
Researchers have also found no evidence whatsoever of prey animals killed by sharks larger than a great white in the last 1.5 million years; and no, the recent viral news story about the 10-foot long great white whose tag was eaten is not evidence of a megalodon. That shark was simply eaten by a larger great white shark.
While some claim that scientists haven’t seen any evidence of megalodon because they live in deep water, Pimiento’s research shows that these sharks in fact lived in shallow coastal seas. “Megalodon fossils appear in shallower marine sediments,” Balk said. “Plus, most large sharks occur in the upper 500 meters of the water column, probably due to productivity. The deep is much too nutrient poor to support such a large animal. “
There are several theories about what could cause a 50-foot long predatory fish to go extinct, including climate change (the ocean was much warmer then), extinction of prey species, and increasing competition for prey due to the evolution of cooperative hunting orca whales. Scientists don’t yet know for sure why they went extinct, according to Pimiento, who has an upcoming paper evaluating several of these theories, but there is no doubt that—I’ll say it again—they are extinct.
Megalodon was an impressive animal, and it’s no surprise that they capture the public’s imagination. A fact-based documentary about what scientists know about these fascinating animals could have been both educational and entertaining. Instead, the Discovery Channel chose to lie to their viewers, actively spreading fear and promoting misunderstanding about one of the most threatened groups of animals in the world. Again.
Discovery Channel representatives declined to comment on this story, though Executive Vice President for Public Relations Laurie Goldberg told me on Twitter that Shark Week 2014 has more hours of programming than ever before, and “most are the factual ones you enjoy.”