“Imagine an enormous predatory shark weighing 60,000 kilograms,” begins Tim Flannery, summoning Otodus megalodon, a leviathan almost 20m long with the landing weight of an Airbus A320. Nicknamed “Big Meg”, this shark inspires Flannery’s latest book, a collaboration with his daughter, scientist and writer Emma Flannery.
Big Meg: The Story of the Largest and Most Mysterious Predator that Ever Lived begins with 17-year-old Tim spending a summer scouring beaches for fossils for the Museum of Victoria’s kindly palaeontology curator. He discovers a massive, lustrously enamelled tooth from an Otodus megalodon – an apt introduction, considering the Latin name literally means “giant tooth”. After a night agonising whether to keep the treasure, he decides to turn it in.
From here we journey with the Flannerys through Miocene seas five million to 23 million years ago, exploring the lineage and relations of Big Meg in the web of shark species. This was a time of profound aquatic diversity, before nature whittled its long list down to the sleek killing machines of the present. To see these weird forebears, it’s worth googling the Bearsden shark, which had a sort of periscope of teeth above its head, and the still-extant but rare goblin shark’s slingshot jaw.
The Flannerys fascinatingly suggest these beasts imprinted the pre-human psyche. Our ancestors would have witnessed from the shore the impact of Big Meg mincing its prey with jaws triple the power of a Tyrannosaurus rex. They argue these traumatic sights seeded sea monsters into our imaginations, which were passed on as stories – our collective minds accumulating fear as an evolutionary tactic, to increase our capacity to survive.
We also visit Otodus megalodon tooth collectors and traders on the east coast of the United States, Peru and Indonesia. Giant fangs, often weighing up to one-and-a-half kilograms, are prized for their pearlescence, which is available in almost any shade.
The Flannerys communicate the science with the fidelity of seasoned palaeontologists without losing the breathless wonder of a seven-year-old talking about sharks at the dinner table. Occasionally the scientific genera of long-extinct species and dating methods involving ratios of strontium isotopes become overwhelming. Also, given all the first-person references are from Flannery the elder, it is difficult to locate Emma’s voice in the book.
All that said, the painstaking process of reconstructing life millions of years ago is a fascinating read. The authors candidly admit we may never know everything about Big Meg. No doubt daughter and father will keep researching, certain the tooth is out there.
Text Publishing, 256pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 2, 2023 as "Big Meg: The Story of the Largest and Most Mysterious Predator that Ever Lived".
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