Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Lair of the Real-Life Kraken

Unless they find something else, this fossil record won't ever be agreed upon by scientists, but it's a more compelling case than bigfoot, as far as I'm concerned. And way, way, bigger than bigfoot, too!

Here is an article about the discovery, perhaps, of the lair of a prehistoric mega-squid. To quote:

A giant sea monster, the likes of the mythological kraken, may have swum Earth's ancient oceans, snagging what was thought to be the sea's top predators — school bus-size ichthyosaurs with fearsome teeth.

The kraken, which would've been nearly 100 feet (30 meters) long, or twice the size of the colossal squid, Mesonychoteuthis, likely drowned or broke the necks of the ichthyosaurs before dragging the corpses to its lair, akin to an octopus's midden, according to study researcher Mark McMenamin, a paleontologist at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. [Rumor or Reality: The Creatures of Cryptozoology]

There is no direct evidence for the beast, though McMenamin suggests that's because it was soft-bodied and didn't stand the test of time; even so, to make a firm case for its existence one would want to find more direct evidence.

McMenamin presented his work Monday (Oct. 10) at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Minneapolis.

Cause of death

Evidence for the kraken and its gruesome attacks comes from markings on the bones of the remains of nine 45-foot (14 meter) ichthyosaurs of the species Shonisaurus popularis, which lived during the Triassic, a period that lasted from 248 million to 206 million years ago. The beasts were the Triassic version of today's predatory giant squid-eating sperm whales.

McMenamin was interested in solving a long-standing puzzle over the cause of death of the S. popularis individuals at the Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in Nevada. An expert on the site, Charles Lewis Camp of U.C. Berkeley, suggested in the 1950s that the ichthyosaurs succumbed to an accidental stranding or a toxic plankton bloom. However, nobody has been able to prove the beasts died in shallow water, with more recent work on the rocks around the fossils by Jennifer Hogler, then at the University of California Museum of Paleontoloy, suggesting they died in a deepwater environment. [See image of kraken's lair]

"I was aware that anytime there is controversy about depth, there is probably something interesting going on," McMenamin said. And when he and his daughter arrived at the park, they were struck by the remains' strangeness, particularly "a very odd configuration of bones."

The etching on the bones suggested the shonisaurs were not all killed and buried at the same time, he said. It also looked like the bones had been purposefully rearranged, likely carried to the "kraken's lair" after they had been killed. A similar behavior has been seen in modern octopus.

The markings and rearrangement of the S. popularis bones suggests an octopus-like creature (like a kraken) either drowned the ichthyosaurs or broke their necks, according to McMenamin.

The arranged vertebrae also seemed to resemble the pattern of sucker disks on a cephalopod's tentacle, with each vertebra strongly resembling a sucker made by a member of the Coleoidea, which includes octopuses, squid, cuttlefish and their relatives. The researchers suggest this pattern reveals a self-portrait of the mysterious beast.

The perfect crime?

Next, McMenamin wondered if an octopus-like creature could realistically have taken out the huge swimming predatory reptiles. Evidence is in their favor, it seems. Video taken by staff at the Seattle Aquarium showed that a large octopus in one of their large tanks had been killing the sharks. [On the Brink: A Gallery of Wild Sharks]

"We think that this cephalopod in the Triassic was doing the same thing," McMenamin said. More supporting evidence: There were many more broken ribs seen in the shonisaur fossils than would seem accidental, as well as evidence of twisted necks.

"It was either drowning them or breaking their necks," McMenamin said.

So where did this kraken go? Since octopuses are mostly soft-bodied they don't fossilize well and scientists wouldn't expect to find their remains from so long ago. Only their beaks, or mouthparts, are hard and the chances of those being preserved nearby are very low, according to the researchers.

With such circumstanial evidence of "the crime," McMenamin expects his interpretation will draw skeptics. And, in fact, it has. Brian Switek, a research associate at the New Jersey State Museum, writing for Wired.com, is extremely skeptical, writing, "The McMenamins' entire case is based on peculiar inferences about the site. It is a case of reading the scattered bones as if they were tea leaves able to tell someone’s fortune. Rather than being distributed through the bonebed by natural processes related to decay and preservation, the McMenamins argue that the Shonisaurus bones were intentionally arrayed in a 'midden' by a huge cephalopod nearly 100 feet long" (McMenamin worked with his wife, Dianna Schulte McMenamin on the study.)

As for how McMenamin would respond to critics: "We're ready for this. We have a very good case," he said.


  1. I think the hapless Morkoth just got a gritty reboot.

  2. I can add a little bit of insight into this press release. Mark McMenamin has a long history of arm-waving and many of his previously published ideas have been wild speculation and poorly founded. While I didn't attend the GSA conference this weekend, I did read Mark's abstract, and I'm afraid he's made a leap from solid speculation based on the evidence, into pure flights of fantasy. The situation has only been exacerbated by the media jumping on the story without bothering to solicit input from other scientists at the meeting.

    My friend and colleague, Graham Young, did attend McMenamin's presentation and he sums up, quite nicely, how McMenamin has gone beyond the normal and acceptable practice of reasonable speculation:

    The basic issue with today’s presentation is that McMenamin took this several stages farther, saying effectively, “since A is true, B is almost certain, and C is likely, so therefore D may have occurred, and thus E followed, and F, and …” Each step in the progression was a relatively small one, but their cumulative effect was a giant leap into a place where the suggestions were no longer supported by science. Like a stealth predator, conjecture crept up on science, overwhelmed and consumed it, and then placed the few robust facts into an artistic and intriguing arrangement.

    This is unfortunate; it was an interesting idea, and I would love to see McMenamin follow this up with the years of field- and lab-based work that would be required to demonstrate whether his conjecture is at all likely. But without this sort of slogging to support it, it will remain just that: conjecture.

    So, likely not true, but an interesting story nonetheless!

  3. I dunno -- I think it's obvious that this is not going to ever reach the level of real science, in terms of any kind of verification. It's interesting, though, to notice an odd arrangement of bones with marks on them, and make the possible case for a predator-cephalopod based on the shark-eating octopus and the "middens," which I don't know anything about other than the assumption that it's a garbage pit for an octopus.

    Neat idea, but never going to be verified one way or the other.

    My theory?


  4. My theory?


    I think we can all agree with this!

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