While I have not yet seen the fake documentary “Megalodon: the monster shark that lives” which has put yet another nail in the coffin of the discovery channel’s reputation for quality programming (what with shows like Moonshiners, Amish Mafia, Auction Kings, Pot Cops, and Weed Country – among others), I have heard that the show has inaccurately reported research from our lab here at Otago in order to support bogus claims that C. megalodon still exists. Now, it’s also important to note as a disclaimer for the uninitiated that the writers never intended their show to be taken at face value as anything but a fake documentary – although it is hardly forgiveable that it was not marketed as such, and that there wasn’t any “WARNING: TOTALLY FAKE” or “100% FANTASY” disclaimer at the beginning of the show.
I won’t be getting into any of the details about C. megalodon survival or other shortcomings of the show, for two reasons: 1) I will discuss the former when it’s appropriate, as I have a paper in preparation on the subject (or rather, the timing of the extinction) and 2) I haven’t actually seen the fake documentary and it would be pretty tacky of me to further rake the muck, and others such as Brian Switek have done a good enough job already (Here and here).
On another note, it is pretty depressing to see what the Discovery Channel has devolved into: the same kind of reality show crap that’s on A&E and The “Learning” Channel. When I was a kid I couldn’t get enough of documentaries with all sorts of beautiful shots of things like reef fish, big cats in their native environment, reptiles in the desert in Africa, and sharks and whales in the open ocean. I ate that stuff up. Nowadays, all it seems like you get on DC is a bunch of rednecks in the swamp, forest, or Alaskan tundra. So many of these shows are deliberate knock-offs of deadliest catch, which I’ll admit can be mildly entertaining. At least Mythbusters and Dirty Jobs, while technically are of the reality show strain, are genuinely aimed at being educational and happen to be really entertaining; however, all of these other Deadliest Catch clones are 5% education, 95% dramatized BS.
Caperea, the baleen whale that, according to the Discovery Channel, was recently rediscovered and formerly thought to be extinct since the Pliocene.
1) The pygmy right whale did not have a published fossil record until 2012. Neobalaenids were not known from the fossil record – at all – until a fragmentary earbone was published from the late Miocene of Australia (read about it here), and a nearly complete skull was published from the late Miocene of Peru (Miocaperea: read more here). This disproves the argument that Caperea was long known only from a Pliocene, pre 2 Ma fossil record. In fact, the fossil record of Caperea has only been known to science for about 11 months.
The skull of Miocaperea pulchra, one of two published neobalaenid fossils. The pygmy right whale fossil record did not exist in the published literature until 2012 (contra the Discovery Channel).
3) Caperea has recently been reinterpreted as a member of the family Cetotheriidae, based on phylogenetic research by my adviser, R. E. Fordyce, and fellow labmate Felix Marx. The Cetotheriidae were formerly known only from the fossil record, and were known – at the time of their writing – to have a fossil record as young as about 2 Ma, based on the youngest fossils of my favorite whale, Herpetocetus. Subsequent work published by myself earlier this year documented Herpetocetus surviving as late as the middle Pleistocene (~1-0.7 Ma). This effectively means that Caperea has been transferred in terms of familial placement – i.e. it’s a cetothere rather than a member of the (formerly) monotypic Neobalaenidae. This obviously doesn’t change the status of Caperea as far as extinctions go; it still has a shitty fossil record, although it’s now identified to be more closely related to a group with a decent fossil record.
Which brings me to point 4) When the Fordyce and Marx phylogeny was published, the LiveScience press release ended up with a pretty misleading title: “Found: Whale thought extinct for 2 million years”. The rest of the article is fine, and accurately describes the research, but I don’t know what happened with the title. When you search on google for details about that research, that article comes up, and I believe that this poorly titled press release happens to be the origin of the “Caperea was thought to be extinct!” myth cited on the fake documentary.
So there you have it. The writers must have seen that press release and latched onto that as gold, to the exclusion of all the good, accurate information on the web regarding the pygmy right whale. Oddly enough, a I wrote a decent synopsis of the research here on my blog (see here), and had the writers of the show bothered to read it, the published article, or even the rest of the mis-titled press release, this misrepresentation of our lab’s research could have been totally avoided.
For more on Caperea: