Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sea Monsters: Get Kraken

In the recent superhero movie Thor the title character tells his human love interest “What you call science we call magic”, or something like that. The point is well taken; the boiling cauldrons and flickering candles of the witches’ cave translate easily to the bubbling beakers and Jacob’s ladders of the mad scientist’s tower. Sometimes, too, science is just as difficult to understand as any magic (or magick). Today’s subject is a good example.

Over at National Geographic online they offer this piece on a discovery of fossilized bones that, when you first look at the article, must be those of a prehistoric Kraken. The Kraken, according to modern interpretation, was one of the many monsters faced by the Ancient Greek hero Perseus in his quest to free himself and his mother from the tyranny of an evil king. In fact, though, that monster was more like a dragon. The word “Kraken” did not come into the English language until much later. The name came about when a Norwegian seaman of the 16th century spotted a giant squid and said it looked like an “uprooted tree” (Kraeken in Norwegian). Kraken, therefore, equals giant squid.

Any of you who have any familiarity with sea life are already scratching your heads. Squid, of course, have no proper bones so how in the heck could ancient squid leave behind fossilized remains? This is where it gets weird.

Mark McMenamin, who is a paleontologist at Mount Holyoke College, took his family on a jaunt to Nevada’s Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park near Las Vegas. While wandering the fossil site, McMenamin noticed “… the orderly arrangement of bones” which led him to the following theory:

… a giant squid or octopus hunted and preyed on the ichthyosaurs and then arranged their bones in double-line patterns to purposely resemble the pattern of sucker discs on the predator’s tentacles.

That is a quote from the article and yes, a paleontologist basically hypothesized that a squid would create its own self-portrait out of the bones of its food source. It’s science!

Actually, it’s not. It’s more of a “pulled out of mid-air” theory that nobody else seems to be buying, and with good cause. McMenamin presented his idea at a scientific conference and has sense had widespread media attention for same. Experts, however, feel that the theory has no basis in fact.

Paul Myers of the University of Minnesota Morris notes that conferences “… are where scientists go to talk with their peers and discuss preliminary data, so they naturally have fairly lax standards.” He also calls McMenamin’s theory “weirdly circumstantial”. Ryosuke Motani of the University of California, Davis, stops just short of saying the theory is bunk by calling it “very implausible” and then goes on to point out that the disc-shaped bones of ichthyosaur spines would fall naturally into a two-by-two pattern, similar to suckers on tentacles, after the animal’s flesh had disintegrated. No artful positioning would be necessary to achieve what we see in the fossil record today.

For anyone who spends time on the ocean, that is certainly a relief. There’s enough to worry about out there without constantly looking over your shoulder for the descendant’s of artistic Kraken.

Header: Ichthyosaur spine fossils via NatGeo


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! The actual line of dialog from the Thor movie was "Your ancestors called it magic, but you call it science. I come from a land where they are one and the same."... just saying.

I think Professor Motani is being kind when he calls McMenamin’s theory “very implausible”, but hey, it got him lots of attention (a Nat Geo article and all)...

As Professor Motani also pointed out, the simplest explanation is usually the best one, even if it's more fun to come up with a SWAG like McMenamin’s "theory".

Pauline said...

OK, there ya go; that's the line. Thankee, Timmy!

I agree with you on the issue of this theory; science can be fun, but let's not force it guys.