According to Shark Week and a whole swath of horror films — including the upcoming movie The Meg — sharks are the perfect villain. They are born to kill. They're unencumbered by a sense of morality. They will plow over the surfboards standing in the way of getting what they want, and what they want is to eat you.
Honestly, this tainted reputation of the earth's shark population is a sort of a shame, really, because they're just big fish trying get by in the same way we're small primates trying to get by with wellness and skincare. But since we're so vulnerable to sharks' teeth and speed, we choose to cast them as the bad guys in our stories — and there's never been a bigger and badder shark than the one who stalks renowned Action Movie Man Jason Statham in The Meg, out August 10.
The Meg is named after the Megalodon, an extinct species of shark, though the title could also work as a horror movie about a girl named Meg who terrorized you in middle school. As Gus Portakolos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding would say, "Megalodon" comes from the Ancient Greek word "megalos" meaning big, and "odon" meaning tooth. The name is well-earned. Megalodon sharks had 250 teeth spread over five rows, measuring up to seven inches each. Much of our knowledge of the Megalodon are derived from their teeth, since the sharks' cartilage-based skeletons were not preserved since cartilage doesn't fossilize like bone.
Long after the sharks went extinct, Megalodons' teeth were actually instrumental in the development of paleontology. For centuries, large fossilized teeth were discovered embedded in land rocks in Malta. These teeth, called glossopetrae, translated (from Greek) to "tongue stones," were considered to have mystical properties. Pliny thought they fell from the heavens during the eclipse; people in the Middle Ages thought they warded against poison. In 1666, Danish geologist Neils Stensen realized these glossopetrae were actually teeth of extinct whales, and that the earth must be much, much older than previously believed.
Reaching a known maximum length of 59 feet, Megalodon sharks are the biggest known sharks to roam the seas. For comparison, the largest great white sharks – a descendent of the Megalodon— reach up to 21 feet. Megalodons have been extinct for 2.6 million years, but had existed for 20 million before that, chomping on dolphins, massive whales, sea turtles, porpoises, and other sharks. These sharks were not messing around: Biologist Stephen Wroe concluded that the shark's bite "could have crushed a small car." Apparently, these giant sharks because extinct due to a lack of prey and increased competition, along with 36% of other sea creature species that went extinct in the same era.
Still, after millions of years, fear of those big-tooth beasts has imprinted itself on our mammalian brains. The shark in The Meg contains the Megalodon's key ingredients — really big body, really big teeth — but in exaggerated form. The shark is supposed to measure 75 to 90 feet, exceeding even a blue whale, the largest animal ever.
We should forgive The Meg for taking creative liberties in reviving the Megalodon. Scientists don't actually know what Megalodons looked like since their skeletons don't exist anymore. Scientists' best guess? Megalodons, the Queen Bees of the seas, had broad, dome-shaped heads and blunt snouts.
Luckily for us, we'll never have an opportunity to discover what these sharks actually look like. Despite what The Meg insinuates, Megalodons are definitively extinct, and not in hiding in some underground Megalodon bunker. We're safe — from Megalodons, at least. As for great whites? Proceed at your own risk.