Could The Meg really bite a ship in half? We took a paleobiologist to the new movie to find out
In the new action movie The Meg, Jason Statham battles an 18-meter-long megalodon, a beast of a shark that lived 20 million years ago. The film posits that a few members of the species are still alive, free to terrorize cargo ships, beachgoers, and even tiny dogs off the coast of China.
If you’re not expecting a lot of scientific accuracy from a movie like this, you won’t be disappointed. But, after a screening, Science sat down with Hans Sues, curator of vertebrate paleobiology at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and an expert on all creatures prehistoric, to see whether the film got anything right. Sues has assisted in the discovery of several new species of dinosaurs and even has one named after him—the dome-skulled pachycephalosaur Hanssuesia sternbergi. He’s now supervising the building of a 15-meter megalodon model for a new space in the museum, which is undergoing renovations.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Did you enjoy The Meg?
A: Absolutely. Very entertaining. I’m a sci-fi nut, and a big fan of anything with Jason Statham in it. I would give it a nine out of 10.
Q: What kind of rating would you give it for scientific accuracy?
A: Probably a one out of 10. Maybe two out of 10 if I’m feeling generous.
Q: Let’s start with the central premise. Is there any way megalodons could have avoided extinction and lived hidden at the bottom of the ocean?
A: No way. That was be absolutely impossible and goes against everything we know about megalodons based on the fossil record. For starters, megalodons were found around the world, but only in warm coastal waters. They just aren’t adapted for deep ocean living. The water is too cold, food would be too scarce, and megalodons would need to modify their whole body shape to avoid being squashed by the enormous water pressure down there. Even if they were still around, it’s inconceivable that humans wouldn’t know about it. We’ve mapped the sea floor and have such advanced sensing technology. We would know if they were there.
Q: What about the movie’s conceit that there’s a whole warm ecosystem trapped under a cloud of hydrogen—the thermocline, as they call it?
A: I don’t think there’s any evidence that such a thing would exist. And plus, it would be lethal to anything that would go through it. Because a cloud of hydrogen sulfide, particularly in dissolved form, would be a terrible thing to go through. I think even a big shark like that couldn’t do that without harm to its physiology.
Q: What did The Meg get right?
A: They got the jaws and teeth right. A megalodon mouth is so big that you could swim into it without touching any of the teeth. It literally could swallow a small car without having to chomp down on it. And the teeth would be about 7 inches or 17 centimeters tall, and it would have several rows in its mouth at once, so as it lost or broke teeth, it could easily replace them.
Q: What about the rest of the shark’s body?
A: What they used in the movie was a scaled-up great white shark. That’s why its body had so much girth. The megalodons were a little bit sleeker. The latest research suggests that they’re most closely related to the living mako sharks, which are more streamlined, sleeker animals. And they exaggerated the megalodon’s size. It was a big animal, about 18 meters long, but the one they had looked to be 23 meters or more, and we have no evidence they ever got that large.
Q: What about the behavior? They had it ramming into ships and underwater subs, is that accurate?
A: That’s a plausible behavior. They might have bumped into prey to stun them or take a little test nibble. There’s a specimen of a small baleen whale that was probably hit by a meg, with unbelievable damage to the skull. There’s also a fossilized whale vertebra from the Chesapeake Bay with this weird compression fracture, which basically could only have happened if something took the whale and almost snapped its backbone.
Q: In the movie the meg could bite a ship in half, would that be possible?
A: Yes. Paleontologists have done some sort of biomechanical modeling based on teeth we’ve found, and they calculated the bite force would be about 40,000 pounds per square inch, which is by far the highest bite force ever calculated for any animal, living or extinct. Even the [Tyrannosaurus rex] bite would be puny by comparison.
Q: If humans and megs were around at the same time, would it try to eat us, like in the movie?
A: It probably wouldn’t go after one or two humans swimming. It would see them as too small to be a good meal. But a whole beach full of swimmers, it might just swim through and scoop up several humans without even chewing, as it does in the movie.
Q: One of the characters says the meg has no natural predators. Is that accurate?
A: Maybe not in the earliest days. But by the time that megalodon had reached its maximum distribution around 9 million years ago, there were a couple of really huge other ocean predators around. There was an extinct relative of today’s sperm whales called Livyatan, like the biblical monster. Livyatan had a skull of about 3 meters in length and teeth up to 30 centimeters. They’re actually the largest teeth of any animal extinct or living. We think that that animal was comparable in length and girth, and it would have given a megalodon a run for its money. And then later on you had other sharks and killer whales. A pod of killer whales could probably take down a megalodon because they’re extremely sophisticated hunters.
Q: Of the sharks we have now, are there any believed to be descended directly from the megalodon?
A: No. The closest relative to them are the mako sharks. And then more distantly the great white shark. For a long time, people thought that the great white was actually a miniaturized version of the megalodon, but that’s not generally held anymore.
Q: When movies like this portray sharks as monsters, do you think there’s any danger to real sharks?
A: Yes, I think that’s something you need to be careful with. I’m sure Jaws probably gave a lot of people second thoughts about going for a swim in the Atlantic. I think this movie might have a similar effect. Sharks are very lethal predators, to be sure, but they don’t go after individual humans. As shark biologists would tell you, humans are much more dangerous to sharks than vice versa.
Q: Do films like The Meg and Jurassic Park generate more interest in the work you do?
A: I’m sure that this movie will capture the attention of some impressionable youngster and either lead the youngster to marine biology or to paleontology. I do a lot of work on dinosaurs and I never lose my fascination with these kinds of animals. There are just so many interesting biological questions. How does a creature like that make a living? How does it interact with its environment? You see this superpredator, you think: “Jeez, what could stop this thing?”
Q: If you were in the movie, how would you have reacted?
A: I probably would have wanted to have kept the shark alive for a little while, despite all of the unpleasantness the shark was creating. We all have our ideas on how these animals lived, and what they did, and what their color looked like. And to see something in real life would test all these hypotheses. It would certainly take your breath away, like Sam Neill’s character getting emotional when he first sees the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.