Since when is Alten an expert?

Fun with stock footage and a blue screen, from Shark Attack 3.

After watching the first episode of Jurassic Fight Club I felt that the show deserved some amount of praise, but I was utterly flabbergasted by the latest episode ("Deep Sea Killers"). (You can see the full episodes yourself, for a limited time, here.)

The new episode featured the famous "mega-tooth" shark, Carcharocles megalodon, popularly called "Megalodon." During the entirety of the episode I don't think the genus name of the shark is ever mentioned; it is always referred to as "Megalodon" (and once as "Meg"). As was mentioned on paleontological mailing lists after the show aired, however, the use of the species name as a popular name is not just annoying but inaccurate. There is a group of bivalves (i.e. clams) with the genus name Megalodon, but such paleontological pedantry was not what made me almost spit soda all over the screen.

When I was in high school I loved books about marine monsters, particularly Peter Benchley's books like BEAST and White Shark. While looking for a similar book in the public library one day I came across a new book called MEG by Steve Alten.

The novel opened with a Tyrannosaurus rex (the famous predator from the Late Cretaceous of North America) stalking a group of Shangtunosaurus, one of the largest hadrosaurus known from the Late Cretaceous of China. Frightened, the hadrosaurs ran into the ocean and the Tyrannosaurus followed, only to get in over it's head. A Carcharocles megalodon with a time machine (as it lived about 50 million years after Tyrannosaurus) was apparently on the scene, and it couldn't resist such a tasty theropod;

From the beach, the two exhausted hadrosaurs watched as T. rex was slammed backward through the ocean with a great whoosh, its huge head disappearing beneath the waves. In a moment the dinosaur surfaced again, wailing in agony as its rib cage was crushed within the jaws of its hunter, a fountain of blood spouting from its mouth.

Like all novels featuring prehistoric predators, of course, it wouldn't be any fun if humans never showed up to be snack food, and so the Alten has the giant sharks survive for millions of years in deep ocean trenches. It wasn't a particularly good book but it kept my interest at the time, and apparently it did well enough to spawn several sequels (the latest, Hell's Aquarium, is due out next year). I definitely wouldn't consider Alten to be any kind of expert on C. megalodon, though, particularly since he had the bad taste to have one of his scientific critics (the author and marine artist Richard Ellis) devoured in effigy by a super-evolved pliosaur in the sequel to Meg called The Trench (the character's name was Ellis Richard).

I was quite surprised, then, to see Alten appear in the above-mentioned episode of Jurassic Fight Club as an expert. I guess Ellis and great white shark experts like John McCosker and Peter Klimley were busy. I don't have anything against people who know a lot about science but who aren't scientists themselves (especially since I'm one of them!), but come on, tapping an author of bestselling, scientifically inaccurate pulp novels as an expert on sharks? Who the hell made that call?

That's all pretty bad by itself, but even worse is that we hear the same old tripe about the possibility that C. megalodon is still alive somewhere in the ocean depths. I haven't studied the history of this claim in modern fiction in detail but it did come up in JAWS, and numerous "so bad it's almost good" novels have been penned on just this premise (i.e. the MEG series, Extinct, Quest for Megalodon, Carcharodon, From the Dark Below, and Megalodon. I won't even get started on all the direct-to-video "Meg" movies...). Alten, of course, is the person who tells us of this shocking news (not like he's trying to get a movie made on the premise or has another book about it or anything...). Brett Kent throws some cold water on the idea, but then we get another clip with Alten saying that it's "wrong to assume" that his favorite monster isn't still out there somewhere. Yes, yes, "teach the controversy" and all that...

As the documentary mentions C. megalodon was probably a coastal predator, not unlike its modern-day analog Carcharodon carcharias, the great white shark. If it adapted to life in some deep sea trench ecosystem it is not going to look like a gigantic great white shark, no matter how much pulp fiction authors might protest. There's no reason to think that it survived or adapted in such a fashion, though, and the argument of "Just because you haven't seen it doesn't mean that it's extinct" holds no weight. The burden of proof is on those who make wild claims, and there is no evidence that the descendants of C. megalodon live on in the deep sea.

Whoever scripted this particular episode needs to be sacked. The whole series is sensationalist in nature, with plenty of minor errors that could have been corrected with more input from actual experts, but the episode described above crosses the boundary into the irresponsible. Maybe I would be a little less harsh if Alten was given his soundbite and than ushered out, but he was actually given more time to speculate about nonsense than the people who have actually studied the fossils! I wonder if we're going to start seeing people wearing pins saying "Megalodon lives" all over the place.

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"The Trench" is appalling. I finished a book in mid-crosscontinental bus journey and it was the only thing of interest in the next service station we hit. Perhaps the worst monster novel evar.

Thank you, sir, for exactly the kind of pedantic, informative, entertaining and fun post for which I subscribed to scienceblogs in the first place.

I salute you.

Once you mentioned the title "Hell's Aquarium", I was a goner, could barely concentrate on the rest of the post. I still can't stop laughing.

I agree with PTET: Nice post, Brian.

The claim that Carcharocles megalodon might still be around stems from two items in popular nature-folklore:

1) the teeth of C. megalodon are nearly identical to those of Carcharodon carcarias (Great White Shark) -- close enough that they may in fact be the same species. And some fossil C. megalodon teeth are so well preserved they almost look modern.

2) Back in the 1870s, there was a report from Australia that a Great White had gotten tangled in an undersea cable and drowned. The report included a figure for the shark's length: 36 feet, almost twice as big as any other great white ever measured anywhere on earth. 36 feet is huge for a lamnid shark, and completely out of line with the known age-growth curves for them. It suggested Great Whites might live for dozens or hundreds of years, and never quite stop growing. But no one ever saw one of these super-sized sharks on the surface, so where were they? Hiding in the ocean's deeps, apparently.

Sadly, both these items of lore are wrong. As you said, C. megalodon is no longer placed as a close relative of the Great White. And the century-old report from Australia proved to be equally mistaken: at some point it had been garbled or typoed, turning a relatively normal 16-foot shark into a 36-foot monster.

By wolfwalker (not verified) on 03 Sep 2008 #permalink

Good God! This is madness!

Someone else has read White Shark?!? ;)

No, but seriously. All I can say about this is WTF? First Nanotyrannus, then naked Deinonychus, and now this? What a freaking joke. The show had such promise, too...

(Speaking of naked dromaeosaurs, did you catch the Skin episode of Evolve? It was only a brief two-second clip, but they actually had a feathered maniraptor! The narration, I think was talking about Sinosauropteryx, but I'm not sure if that's what it was meant to be. Still, either way, it was a dinosaur with some bloody feathers on it for once.)

That makes 3 of us that have read White Shark then. The Trench is much worse but a quick search of amazon reveals something called "the Loch" by Alten that may be a contender.

You make a good start, but the argument that if C. meg. survives (hey, the ocean is a big place...) it almost certainly wasn't by hiding in DEEP ocean trenches can be made even stronger.
(i) Sharks in general are comparatively shallow-water animals: not clear exactly why, but very few sharks live seriously far down; really deep-ocean fish tend to be teleosts.
(ii) Really deep environments are resource poor: not much food sinks all the way down, so species found neaqr the bottom of deep trenches tend to be... economical: slow growing, not moving very fast most of the time. Precisely NOT like fast-swimming (semi-endothermic?) upper-ocean predators.
If I were told (by a trustworthy oracle) that C. meg. was still alive and asked where to look... I'd say my bet would be surface waters, well away from normal shipping lanes, probably Antarctic, with lots of krill: places where newly weaned, inexperienced, baleen whales will be too busy eating to be wary.

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 03 Sep 2008 #permalink

I have not yet have had time to watch this episode, but it does disappoint me to hear that they actually brought up the possibility of C. megalodon surviving.

The youngest bona fide occurrences of C. megalodon (i.e. with solid age determinations, locality data, and lack of reworking) are early Pliocene (ca. 4-5 Ma) at the very latest. This is at least what the North American record indicates.

As far as the Carcharodon carcharias - Carcharocles megalodon link, it doesn't exist. There are numerous differences in the teeth. Also, it is possible to contain teeth of C. megalodon and about a half dozen other species of Carcharocles and the genus Otodus within a single Eocene-Pliocene anagenetic lineage.

Additionally, Carcharodon carcharias evolved directly from a 'mako' shark (Isurus hastalis) during the late Miocene. So the two are completely distinct if you trace tooth morphs stratigraphically, and the two groups to which they belong likely split sometime during the cretaceous.

I'll watch the episode and probably post some angry comments afterwards.

Afer hearing all of this good press for the Jurassic Fight Club episode featuring the shark megalodon, I'm glad I missed the episode and think I'll skip the re-airing.

I left out the initial for the generic name because there is a 2006 publication putting the species back into Megaselachus. Whichever name you use, yes, the majority of the fossil shark specialists that I know believe there is a closer relationship between Isurus and Carcharodon than extant white sharks and extinct "mega-toothed" sharks. Note also that the extinct species hastalis, for a long time identified as a mako (Isurus), is considered by many to be more closely related to Carcharodon than Isurus (see Cosmopolitodus hastalis). Although there are still holdouts for the Carcharocles (Megaselachus)/Carcharodon lineage, a 2005 report convincingly used statistical analyses of teeth to show a close relationship between Isurus and Carcharodon.

Unfortunately, I read "Meg" on a beach in Hawaii back in '97, and I get a lot of questions about megalodon surviving to the present day. I agree with Boesse that the US fossil record suggests that the taxon became extinct shortly into the Pliocene. I've seen a lot of Mio-Pliocene material reworked into younger deposits, so this could be a source of claims for post-Pliocene occurrences. Alternatively, I've also seen some gigantic upper Pliocene Carcharodon carcharias teeth, and it is possible these are being confused with megalodon. Incidentally, Pliocene Galeocerdo cuvier (tiger shark) and Carcharhinus leucas (bull shark) teeth appear to be bigger than most of what I've seen as far as recent specimens go.

Well this is enough gabbing for now...

By Cicimurri (not verified) on 04 Sep 2008 #permalink

Just out of curiousity, I'm interested in the two references you mentioned. First, the 2006 re-introduction of Megaselachus; I remember reading that Casier originally did that back in the '60s.

Second, by the 2005 pub, do you mean Nyberg et al. 2006?

Lastly, I have seen some incredibly large C. carcharias teeth from the San Diego Formation, at SDNHM. And I agree, I have read about many "Pleistocene" C. megalodon occurrences, but these can usually be shown to be reworked, and come from areas where there are stratigraphically lower occurrences of C. megalodon that likely represent the original occurrence.

"I definitely wouldn't consider Alten to be any kind of expert on C. megalodon, though, particularly since he had the bad taste to have one of his scientific critics (the author and marine artist Richard Ellis) devoured in effigy by a super-evolved pliosaur in the sequel to Meg..."

Egad, that's low class. The other example that comes to mind is the mocking of Roger Ebert in the remake of Godzilla, because Ebert had the gall to suggest that the previous film by the same crew, Independence Day, wasn't particularly good. It's a good sign that you've "jumped the shark"' (my apologies) when you take out your petty grudges in your fiction.

"I was quite surprised, then, to see Alten appear in the above-mentioned episode of Jurassic Fight Club as an expert."

Hey, it's not so surprising in a world where Michael Crichton can advise the POTUS on global warming.

You're right, Boesse, it was Nyberg et al. (JVP, 26(4)) 2006, not 2005. That'll teach me to post something without looking at the actual reference. Casier (1960) placed mega-toothed taxa (i.e., auriculatus, angustidens, megalodon) into Procarcharodon, and you see references to P. megalodon up into the late 80s. Gluckman (1964) lumped auriculatus and angustidens into Otodus, and put megalodon into his new genus Megaselachus. Cappetta (1987) tossed out Megaselachus in favor of Carcharocles Jordan and Hannibal, but in 2006, he went back to Megaselachus. This taxonomy could all just be a bunch of junk because it's based on tooth morphology, but you do what you can with what you've got...

Casier, E. 1960. Note sur la collection des poissons paleocenes et eocenes de l'Enclave de Cabinda (congo). Annales du Musee Royal du Congo Belge, series A, 3:1-48.

Cappetta, H. 2006. Elasmobranchii Post-Triadici (Index specierum et generum). Fossillium Catalogus 1: Animalia. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden.

By Cicimurri (not verified) on 05 Sep 2008 #permalink

I was personally very happy when Nyberg et al. came out, because it was really the first quantitative study to address the Carcharodon-Isurus-Carcharocles "controversy". I personally feel there isn't much of a controversy.

Thats right, Casier coined Procarcharodon and Gluckman coined Megaselachus. Thanks for setting me straight - its been a while since I last read the literature on "megatooth" taxonomy. Doing too much on whales and pinnipeds lately.

One thing that I noticed in this episode was that several times while they were discussing the killer "sperm whales" they flashed up on the screen a set of jaws that clearly belonged to a mosasaur of some kind (and not during the brief section on Mesozoic marine reptiles). Arrrgh!