As “The Meg”, a new sci-fi horror film about a giant shark, fills cinema screens worldwide, it’s worth pausing to appreciate the animal behind the screams. Carcharocles megalodon (or just Megalodon) is one of the most impressive creatures ever to have existed on Earth. Huge, voracious, and beautifully mysterious, megalodons were the largest known sharks to ever exist.
The species itself is only known from the fossil teeth it left behind, which can be as long as 18cm. These relics suggest an appetite for whales, and scientists have used them to estimate a body size of up to 17 meters. But despite their dying out at least 2.6m years ago, the primal fear such a massive creature inspires is very much alive.
No other scientific discipline can fill cinema seats quite like paleontology, but for a long time, it has been dinosaurs that have ruled the ancient roost. Films like Jurassic Park influenced a generation, and for many of us, the awe and fascination on the faces of the paleontologists was just as captivating as the beasts themselves.
Without a time machine or the budget of a film studio, most paleontologists never get to see the movement, sound, and spectacle of their favorite long-dead animal. Screen time is always biased towards charismatic megafauna because exalting the charms of species that don’t even merit their own Wikipedia page is a hard sell. For people to engage with the complexity of biodiversity we must first pique their interest with the big ticket beasts.