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ENVIRONMENT

A megalodon shark? No, just a school of mackerel. But it got imaginations going.

Although extinct for millions of years, observers wonder whether the big-toothed “Meg” could still exist somewhere in the ocean’s depths.

A sonar image recorded by the Atlantic Shark Institute turned out to be a school of Atlantic mackerel, not a massive prehistoric shark known as a "meg."JON DODD / ATLANTIC SHARK INSTITUTE

Though the last of the megalodons died around 2.6 million years ago, people have often wondered whether the big-toothed beasts still live on the murky sea bottom. There’s no evidence they do.

But recently, an Atlantic Shark Institute fish finder stunned researchers when it detected something that appeared to be the shape of a megalodon — also called a “meg” — approximately 50 feet long.

Before you get all excited, the sharky image on the seafloor quickly dispersed — it was actually a school of Atlantic mackerel. However, that didn’t keep the shark institute from having some fun with a common sonar trompe l’oeil.

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“Does the Meg exist? On a recent shark research trip we were all amused to see this shape appear on our fish finder for several minutes. Based on the length of the image we estimated the ‘Meg’ to be about 50 feet long, weighing in at 40 tons!” the Atlantic Shark Institute wrote on its Facebook page.

The post by executive director Jon Dodd said he dropped a fishing line, to no avail.

“We waited for one of the rods to go off however, much to our disappointment, the shape started to transition into a large school of Atlantic mackerel that hung around the boat for about 15 minutes,” the organization joked in the post. “So close, but so far! The Megalodon (Otodus megalodon), disappeared more than 3 million years ago and will likely stay that way, but, for a few minutes, we thought he had returned!”

The post triggered wild speculation and further sonar images of “megs,” and one cute image of a giant clown fish from “Finding Nemo.” Over the years, Dodd said, he’s looked at millions of sonar images with pareidolia — the perception of seeing meaningful images in a random pattern.

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“They could look like a shark, or a car, or a football,” Dodd told the Globe. “It’s kind of funny, someone might say, ‘Hey, there’s an umbrella on the bottom.’ But I haven’t seen one like that. ‘Look, we have a megalodon under the boat. Look at the arch to it,’ we started joking. ‘I bet that’s a 50-foot. … that’s it.’ We took a picture of it.”

An artist's reconstruction of Otodus megalodon preying on a species of whale in the Pliocene Period.J. J. Giraldo/NYT

Commenters on the Atlantic Shark Institute’s Facebook and Instagram posts didn’t disappoint in their responses to the yarn.

Rodolfo Salinas Villareal wrote: “Oceans and seas remain unexplored and many species that have never been seen live in them. You never know what could be under water.”

Tom Cole wondered if this could be a British visitor, “‘Nessy’ on a field trip from the Loch!”

Some who missed the joke called it “utter nonsense.”

“This is the best clickbait I’ve ever seen,” wrote Ben Kibler on Instagram.

The Atlantic Shark Institute responded that sonar images resembling megalodons frequently occur, but that doesn’t keep researchers from investigating. Shark tooth hunters in the Southeast United States often find megalodon teeth of varying sizes while diving in Atlantic and coastal waterways in the Carolinas, Florida, and Maryland. Many megalodon teeth are found at construction sites on land previously covered by ocean water.

“I post once a week about the cool stuff we are doing and ran across that in my catalog,” Dodd said. “This will be funny. Honestly, I thought 300 people would like it and move on to the next one.”

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Three megalodon shark teeth found on the west coast of Florida.Courtesy of Matt Houston

Asked what it would take to land a megalodon, the Atlantic Shark Institute responded: a 10-ton cable fishing line. However, it doesn’t carry that kind of equipment.

Looks like this is just another story about “the one that got away.”

Dodd, who mentioned that he was holding a 5 3/8-inch megalodon tooth in his hand as he talked to the Globe, said he was candid about his fish story but television networks and newspapers across the world still reported a possible sighting of a prehistoric shark in Atlantic waters. He said people don’t always read past the first line of a news story.

“It reminds me of the game if you whisper something in a circle and see if it’s the same when you get to the end,” Dodd said. “Every time this got posted someone took that and refined it.”

He wasn’t trying to fool anyone. The Atlantic Shark Institute takes its research seriously but its researchers like to have fun, too. If they come across something cool, Dodd says he tries to post it on social media.

“In the context of today, frankly, I’ve laughed about it a lot,” he said. “People can distort it if they want and have fun with it. Anyone who is a follower of the Atlantic Shark Institute can go on and see our Instagram post and see we laughed about it. Megalodons have been gone for 2.6 million years and we are better off if it stays that way.”

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The reason for posting the image on social media was to call attention to the “seriousness of the shark research and importance of it,” Dodd said.

“The fact [is] there are many things we don’t know and many things that keep changing because of the changing dynamics of the ocean and ocean temperatures,” he said. “The fact the mako is endangered and can’t be touched. It’s great it brings attention to research and researchers. If it starts off with a funny quip about funny-shaped mackerel shaped like a meg, the intent was to have fun with it.”


Carlos Muñoz can be reached at carlos.munoz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ReadCarlos and on Instagram @Carlosbrknews.