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Part 6 in a 7-part series of profiles on sea monsters.

Megalodon

An artist's rendering of the extinct Megalodon, which—to judge from those motion lines—is hurtling inexplicably... backward.

If you think Jaws is scary, you’ll break into a cold sweat when you imagine that predator’s prehistoric predecessor, Megalodon (from the Greek meaning “big tooth”). The first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on this behemoth shark reads more like a Marvel comic book than like a scientific encyclopedia entry, tossing around such terms as, “mega-tooth shark” and “super-predator.”

Partially-preserved Carcharodon megalodon remains suggest a creature approximately 66 feet long. Paleontologists have consequently deemed the Megalodon the “largest and most powerful macro-predatory fish in vertebrate history” (from Wikipedia).

When Renaissance folks discovered the large fossilized teeth of the Megalodon, they interpreted them as fossilized dragon tongues. Danish naturalist Nicolaus Steno corrected this misinterpretation in 1667, in his book, The Head of a Shark Dissected.

fossilized Megalodon tooth

A fossilized dragon tongue.

Its bite is estimated to be about 10 times greater than that of its modern-day relative, the great white shark; and over 5 times greater than that of Tyrannosaurus rex.

Megalodon jaws - Bashford Dean 1909

Talk about "Jaws." Bashford Dean's reconstructed Megalodon jaws, 1909.

Megalodon jawsFor all of its impressive monster qualifications, Megalodon is curiously lacking in a definitive fictional presence. It features in a host of tacky gore-fests, the sort of DVD titles you see on the “Hot Picks” shelf of your local Blockbusters (remember those?), but have never heard of anywhere else. Perhaps the most high-profile novel dealing with the Megalodon is Steve Alten’s Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror, which I actually read. Apparently the novel is inaccurate in so much as it suggests the Megalodon existed during the time of the dinosaurs, when in fact its fossil record dates it to the late Oligocene epoch and Neogene period. Still, I remember the reading experience as fun and frightening, so if you’re looking for a ripping good “super-predator” yarn, I recommend it. (Best not to hold your breath for the film adaptation, which has apparently been mired in development hell since 1997-ish.)

Mythological/fictional inactivity aside, anything which can gobble up the formidable Jaws like a seal gulping a sardine is worthy of mention among the Orange Monk’s aquarium of deep-sea terrors.

Megalodon scale

Join me next time for the conclusion of this series, in which we examine the chief dread in the minds of sailors across the Seven Seas, and arguably the king of all sea monsters…

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Part 5 in a series of profiles on sea monsters.

Jaws poster

Hopefully no one will be confused by the transition from Moby-Dick to Jaws. To me, it certainly feels like one of the most natural progressions imaginable. Both are about huge, white, underwater monsters. Central to the plots of both is an obsessive search-and-destroy mission undertaken by men to rid the deep of the titular terrors. In both, said search is met with mixed results.

When Steven Spielberg’s Jaws opened in 1975, it transformed cinema. What we now take for granted as the Hollywood business of “blockbusters” was actually a concept birthed that summer. A lot of cinephiles hold a grudge against Spielberg for unleashing his great white monstrosity on the public for just that reason: the summer that Jaws opened is sometimes pointed to as the beginning of the end for patient, intellectual, “serious” filmmaking. It’s easy even for fans of Jaws to dismiss it as an exercise in expertly timed “jump” scares and over-amped tension. If in fact it turns out that Jaws is nothing more than a “popcorn” movie, let’s at least give it its due credit for being one of the best ever. The formula has been reproduced over and over again (“Okay, instead of a shark in the ocean, what if it’s an alligator in a lake? What if, okay, it’s snakes… on a plane?”) even by Spielberg himself (“Ok, what if it’s — track with me here — dinosaurs in a park?”), but rarely with near as much success. (In fact, of the examples I’ve just alluded to, Spielberg’s own knock-off, Jurassic Park, is arguably the best.) In short, to dismiss Jaws as nothing more than the genre of film it inspired is as criminal as dismissing Psycho as nothing more than the host of anemic imitations it has inspired.

Great White Shark

I'm so disturbed by these creatures that I could hardly bring myself to do the Google image search that netted this charming picture. It's from the first page of results... Gulp.

After all, I just compared it to one of our country’s finest literary achievements, and I’m guessing there wasn’t too much surprised blinking.

So, then, bringing our high-minded approach to inquiry to our low-brow penchant for amusement (as is the Monk’s raison d’être), the question seems to be this: Is the shark an instrument of God’s retribution on a corrupt seaside town masquerading as the perfect summer getaway spot? When it tugs Chrissie beneath the ocean’s dark surface in the film’s chilling opener, is it divine punishment for the campfire promiscuity that led her into the ocean that night? When it bites Sam Quint in half, is it a higher power finally claiming a soul it missed when the battleship Indianapolis went down, and most of its crew were devoured by sharks? Is it a mythical man-eating monster deserving of its own special epithet, “Jaws,” to set it apart from its fellow great whites?

Or, is it just a shark? Unusually large, sure. Maybe a little more ravenous than most, but that’s like accusing one certain snail of being slower than its peers. It’s simply one of those variations in a pattern which happens in Nature. The shark isn’t picking on anyone, it’s simply found a source of food, and it will feed until sated. It’s a shark, after all. What is a shark if not an eating machine? To give it an individual name is preposterous. It’s simply a Great White. Carcaradon carcharias.

Yeah. Tell it to Captain Quint.

Jaws from Moonraker

Not the Jaws I'm talking about, but given the theme of this blog, we may get to him one day...

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