Thursday, November 10, 2011
Sea Monsters: Get Kraken
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