How big was Megalodon? Ethics in paleontology

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Discussion by: JonPerry

Megalodon-comic

In good fun I recently created a comic about the estimated size of megalodon but while drawing it I began to ask some serious questions about the ethics of model building in paleontology – especially when realistically recreating bones which were never actually found with a specimen.

Megalodon-with-fake-bones

Above we see the jaw bones and teeth of Megalodon on display at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. The jaw bones here are totally fake. Nobody has ever found the jaws of megalodon, only the teeth and a few vertebrae. Look how real and misleading this model is.

If you go into any dinosaur museum you will see dozens of full skeletons of extinct creatures. Very few fossils are found with all bones included. It's common in Paleontology to simply sculpt the bones which must be missing. Some make it obvious which bones were found and which were not by making the fakes black or some obviously fake color (see the skull of homo Habilis below) but many museums go way out of their way to make the fake bones look real.

Homo habilis

Some displays will tell you which bones were actually found and which weren't but this is not always the case and even when it is, few people read the fine print.

To any museum directors out there who may be reading this, I submit to you that it is misleading and therefor unethical to create real looking bones for a specimen. Re-creating full skeletons is fine but all re-created bones and fragments should be obviously fake at a glance as shown in Homo habilis above. Please consider this for future display designs.

Thanks
Jon Perry

See the origional posting of the comic here.

13 COMMENTS

  1. But do the size of the teeth not let people draw a conclusion to the size of the Jaw. Can proportionality be measured by viewing proportionality in other vertebrate. I know that this is also fraught with difficulty,

    But I imagine there are many things that can lead us in the right direction ,

    Vertebrates are generally proportional , i.e big teeth big skull

    Vertebrates are symmetrical .

    Vertebrates can share common and close ancestory with similar proportioned creatures. Closely related animals give a tell tell sign as to physiology

    Vertebrates are adapted to a specific environment and have physiological structures that are consistent with their adaptive needs.

    Read somewhere that given a physiological structure , scientists can make assumptions when they take into account gravity and other environmental constraining phenomenon.

    Scientist can also make assumptions on one skeletal structure based on the structure of complete fossils that share the same adaptive need. Hence the likely hood of a similar physiological structure.

    I see your point though

  2. Can’t argue with that. Stranger things than buck-toothed sharks have turned up in the fossil record, and in the meantime, it’s best to make it clear to people what palaeontology deals with.

    • But is it not safe to say when we look back at the historical fossil record for vertebrates that teeth are generally symmetrical and fairly uniform. If there is a canine formation it’s established across many vertebrates , No? And we can establish that by looking at the historical record.

      In reply to #2 by Zeuglodon:

      Can’t argue with that. Stranger things than buck-toothed sharks have turned up in the fossil record, and in the meantime, it’s best to make it clear to people what palaeontology deals with.

  3. In reply to #3 by Pauly01:

    But is it not safe to say when we look back at the historical fossil record for vertebrates that teeth are generally symmetrical and fairly uniform. If there is a canine formation it’s established across many vertebrates , No? And we can establish that by looking at the historical record.

    I’m not saying never make a stab at reconstruction using modern knowledge and probability estimates, heck no. I’m saying give the museum-goers the evidence that this is going on, as opposed to giving the impression that all fossils are dug out of the ground complete and intact.

    • Fair enough.
      In reply to #4 by Zeuglodon:

      In reply to #3 by Pauly01:

      But is it not safe to say when we look back at the historical fossil record for vertebrates that teeth are generally symmetrical and fairly uniform. If there is a canine formation it’s established across many vertebrates , No? And we can establish that by looking at the…

  4. Just to make it clear: I’m perfectly fine with people making fake bones based on educated guesses but I just want them to make it obvious which were actually found and which are hypothetical.

    Some paleontologists and museums do this but many do not.

  5. I love this. I haven’t questioned it before, but I have felt vaguely uncomfortable at times when I’ve seen entire skeletons that have been reconstructed from a single tooth, or some other minuscule fossil. One can only imagine the roars of self-satisfied laughter from the creationist corner.

    • In reply to #8 by missbutton:

      I love this. I haven’t questioned it before, but I have felt vaguely uncomfortable at times when I’ve seen entire skeletons that have been reconstructed from a single tooth, or some other minuscule fossil. One can only imagine the roars of self-satisfied laughter from the creationist corner.

      They don’t construct entire skeletons from a single tooth.. Most of those deal with multiple fossils from multiples of the same species in which often offer the missing pieces.. It’s not all assumption.. What we deal with in terms Megalodon is is comparison to a similar shark species the Great white, and even other shark species in terms of the vertebra and teeth in relation to their size. And they note a margin of error in any of the peer review literature concerning this issue and what is assumption. Though giving the evidence, I would agree that the Shark would have been at least 30+ feet.

  6. I seem to recall that the bones of most, if not all, of the display skeletons are man made copies of fossils. If true we could colour code the bones to indicate thew source.

    Bone colour for a bone of the creature displayed.

    Green for a bone from another animal of the same species.

    Yellow for a bone of a closely related species.

    Black for a bone created entirely from the imagination, in order to complete a skeleton.

    I imagine some spectators might be somewhat surprised by how few bone coloured bones some display models have.

  7. This article (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1366454/Largest-prehistoric-Megalodon-shark-jaw-assembled-auction.html) perhaps makes such reconstructions more defensible: one (perhaps the one shown) used 182 fossil teeth, ie quite a few: and, perhaps more importantly, since shark ‘bones’ are actually cartilage, the changes of finding fossil jays are highly remote.

    However, I agree with Jon’s main point, that fossil and reconstructed parts should be distinguishable. There has I think been a parallel debate regarding buildings, or statues, with some restorations having the new stone (or whatever) in a different colour.

    I think reconstructions can be justified, to convey the current view of what the object would have been when intact, but that does need to be clearly flagged.

    Steve

  8. Doesn’t the size, type and shape of the teeth tell us how they were used and thus something about the owner? A certain number of cutting or tearing teeth need a certain amount power behind them. Or is this too much extrapolation?

  9. Filling in a left zygomatic arch realistically is legit when you have a right one. When you have a dozen skulls, it would be legit to reconstruct a piece realistically if any of the skulls had that piece. You need to mark only when you are speculating.

    Though is is probably best to mark anything that is not original bone.

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