[MUSIC PLAYING] SORA KIM: Given the issues that we face right now with global climate change, it's super important that any way that we can possibly get people excited and engaged in science that we take advantage of it.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Hi. You're listening to Universe of Art, a podcast from Science Friday and WNYC Studios about artists who use science to take their creations to the next level. I'm Science Friday producer D. Peterschmidt.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw the new monster movie, the Meg 2, in a nearly empty theater on a Wednesday at noon, which some would say is the ideal moviegoing experience. You might have heard of this movie. Its two main stars are Jason Statham and a huge extinct shark that's come back from the grave with a vengeance.
- We've got company.
- That's the biggest meg I've ever seen.
- Biggest meg anyone's ever seen.
- That's the apex predator.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: That extinct shark is a megalodon, the meg in question. Totally real shark. It was the largest shark that ever swam the ocean. It was about 60 feet long and lived around 2.5 million years ago.
The movie is, obviously, ridiculous. It's like Fast and Furious meets Jaws. But I was surprised by how much science was in the movie. A lot of the main characters are ocean researchers, who accidentally discover and unleash the megalodon, of course. But I also wanted to learn how legit the megalodon portrayal was.
So I talked to an ancient shark researcher to learn more. Her name is Dr. Sora Kim she's an associate professor of palaeoecology at University of California, Merced. I loved hearing how she enjoyed the movie, how we're able to learn about these ancient animals through their teeth, and how silly action flicks like this could inspire people to pursue a career in science. Anyway, here's that interview.
Dr. Sora Kim, welcome to Universe of Art.
SORA KIM: Hi, thank you.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: So I'd love to start off by asking what you thought of the Meg 2, both as an ancient shark researcher and what you thought of it as someone who just likes to have a good time at the movies.
SORA KIM: I'll start off with someone who likes to have a good time at the movies. I thought it was great. And in terms of my role as a scientist, I think it's really important to have movies that represent science and scientists that are also very entertaining. And maybe sometimes all the science isn't perfect, but it's still important to have that role out there in pop culture.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. Before we get into the movie, can you give us just an overview of megalodon, what made them unique, when were they swimming in the ocean?
SORA KIM: Megalodon is, you know, the most awesome apex predator basically, and I think that that's why they capture the curiosity and imagination of everyone. The teeth are as big as an adult hand. And when people don't know what megalodon is, I just described the big teeth. And then I'm like, yeah, if you've ever seen images on the internet of people standing inside of a shark jaw, that's a megalodon jaw. And
There's just no way not to be awestruck with something of that size. But there's a lot that we don't know about megalodon as well. Sharks don't have bones. Their entire skeleton, there's some calcified cartilage, but it's not actually bone. And all we have are their teeth.
They're wide and pointy. You can find them on some beach shores. My first megalodon tooth I found while I was on a college field trip. And scientists stuck their shovel into the side of a cliff and pulled it out, and there was a megalodon tooth.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Oh my god.
SORA KIM: Yeah, I know, right? When does that ever happen? F And I wasn't even interested in studying sharks at that time. But everybody was like, whoa, that's so cool.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: So speaking of the teeth from these extinct sharks and what they can tell us about these long lost animals, why are shark teeth such a good candidate for that kind of research?
SORA KIM: I oftentimes say that it's mostly that shark teeth are great because there's so many of them. For us, we have two sets of teeth, our baby teeth and then our adult teeth. And then once you're out, that's it.
But sharks are continuously replacing their teeth. So it's estimated that a single shark might go through like 10,000 teeth in its lifetime. But on top of that, sort of the newer science that my group and others have been able to pursue is to look at the chemistry within the teeth. So when teeth are forming, they're using elements and nutrients that are within the shark's body or within the environment.
And then they're basically putting that into the enameloid, which is akin to our enamel on our teeth. And with our enamel, you go to the dentist, and we put on fluoride. And that fluoride helps your enamel be stronger. And sharks, they actually have that totally naturally occurring, where their teeth, their enameloid, already has the fluoride embedded in it. So they preserve for tens of millions of years.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: That's ridiculous. I had no idea about that. So kind of diving into the movie now, the movie portrays the meg as over 80 feet long. Were they really that big?
SORA KIM: Not likely. We don't have a lot of information in terms of what the shape and length of a megalodon was. Most scientists that do this type of research, their guesses are more like 50 or 60 feet. But we don't actually have a complete skeleton of a megalodon yet.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Still pretty big, sounds like.
SORA KIM: Yes. Plenty big but not 80 feet.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: And in the movie, the megalodon can swim faster than a jet ski. It can make these super sharp hairpin turns. Do we know how fast an agile megalodon actually was?
SORA KIM: There have been some estimates based on the width and the shape of the vertebrae. But we don't really have any really solid way to make these estimates. The reality is, when you're really big, it's really hard to speed up and also make quick turns because there's momentum involved. So I think it makes for great movie, but I'm not sure that the science can totally back that up.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Fair enough. And then as far as looks go, in the movie, it basically just looks like a great white shark just kind of blown up. Since we don't have skeletons of it, do we know what it actually looked like?
SORA KIM: Again, we are kind of in the dark. Previously, we thought that megalodon was closely related to white sharks. And we consider white sharks to be the apex predator shark in our waters today. So I think that's where the linkage came in.
But more recently, there's actually been a lot of evidence that megalodon isn't even within the same genus or group as white sharks. And so they're more distantly related to white sharks. A lot of our ideas for the shape and the lifestyle characteristics of megalodon come from this association with white sharks. But there's not really a great reason scientifically for that necessarily, except that they're both apex predators.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: After the break, we talk about the science and the film that left an impression on Sora and the creatures she hopes to encounter in a possible sequel. We'll be right back.
What impressed you with the science in the movie?
SORA KIM: Well, I was very excited to see their depiction of the diversity in the marine ecosystem when they're in the deep water in the Mariana's Trench, and how they characterize what that ecosystem could look like, and how vibrant it was, and the different types of organisms and stuff I thought was really cool. And I guess one thing that I was super excited about in the movie is that shark science is really dominated by men, and white men at that. And it was really nice with Meg 1 but also with Meg 2 that there was a little bit more cultural representation beyond that.
I realize it was only one type of cultural representation beyond that. But it was cool that Asians were represented in the movie.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah, absolutely. I know your lab has been doing some work with that. Is that right?
SORA KIM: Yes. I do a lot related to broadening participation and diversity, equity, and inclusion in my group. And I think that a lot of my connecting with science communication and such stems from a group called Minorities in Shark Science, who have been making huge strides in pushes in having more representation in Shark Week or Shark Fest and in doing science communication.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Absolutely, yeah. Thank you for bringing that up. I saw this review of the Meg 2 on a site called the conversation that was written by a paleobiologist named Jack Cooper. And he was talking about how he was inspired to go into this field of study because he saw a documentary about extinct sharks growing up. And even though these films might not be the most scientifically accurate, how do you feel about them being these potential vehicles for people to get into ocean science?
SORA KIM: Yeah. I think that that's exactly what they should do and why I even do interviews like this is that any vehicle that we can use to get people interested and excited about science, especially given the issues that we face right now with global climate change, human impacts on marine ecosystems, it's super important that any way that we can possibly get people interested, excited, and engaged in science, that we take advantage of it.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: So it's only inevitable that the Meg 3 is going to get made. If you were in the writer's room, what would you want from the next movie?
SORA KIM: Ooh. I think that I would love to see more diversity of sharks featured. There's some really cool sharks throughout the evolution of sharks. They've been around for, we think, over 400 million years. That's a really long time.
The other thing that would be cool, if they want to keep with definitely the megalodon and this time period of the Miocene, Pliocene, is depicting some of the marine mammals that were around. There are ancient toothed whales that we don't really have around today.
And so one of the theories for why megalodon went extinct was that, given their big size, that they would need to eat big things. Those big things are probably whales. And during this time period, there was a shift in the climate and in marine ecosystems and perhaps that their prey, the whales, were in jeopardy. And so some of the recent research that we have suggests that there could be other factors as well.
But there was definitely a lot going on. And there was a much more diversity in terms of marine predators. And if megalodon could survive below this fictional thermocline, then there should be other organisms from that time period that were also able to survive. And it would be cool to see some of that as well.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah, absolutely. Well, Sora, thanks for taking the time to talk about this ridiculous movie.
SORA KIM: Absolutely. It was super fun to watch, so I was very entertained.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Universe of Art is hosted and produced by me, D. Peterschmidt, and I also wrote the music. Our show art is illustrated by Abelle Hayford. And support for Science Friday's science and arts coverage comes from the Alfred P Sloan Foundation.
Also, if you have an idea for a future episode of Universe of Art, you can send us an email or a voice memo to email@example.com. We'll be back in two weeks. See ya.