McMenamin’s Kraken

18 Oct

Kraken are fun. Originally a creature of Norwegian myth, they’ve become synonymous with leviathan creatures, murky depths, and the fear of the ocean. Linnaeus included them in his first classifications in 1735; Lord Alfred Tennyson devoted a poem to them in 1830. Today we can point to videos of giant squid and their massive antarctic cousins as evidence of giant cephalopods, even though they don’t quite measure up to myth. Well, if the Mount Holyoke College paleontologists Mark and Diane McMenamin are correct, they may have not been all that mythical. We just got the time period wrong.

To see the evidence, we need to look at fossils. The Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in Nevada is one of the best places to view Shonisaurus popularis, a titanic Triassic ichthyosaur. Bones from nine of these gigantic predators can be seen here. And they were truly massive, at least as large as the modern sperm whale. But the bones are not arranged as you would expect. Instead of long backbone-like lines they are found in odd geometric patterns. Rows of circular vertebrae line up in sideways brackets. The conventional idea was that the giants were stranded in shallow water and died lined up on an ancient beach. But this idea was discredited once it was proven that (A) there was no beach anywhere near the area, the water would have been quite deep and (B) the giant ichthyosaurs died at different times, not all at once.

The shonisaur vertebrae “pavement”

But the almost-deliberate patterning of the bones suggested another possibility. At a conference on October 10th, 2011 the McMenamins proposed that this is not a graveyard, but an abattoir. “Modern octopus will do this…” says McMenamin, “I think that these things were captured by the kraken and taken to the midden and the cephalopod would take them apart.” And after feeding on their bodies, the leftover bones would have been arranged to suit the whims of some ancient intelligence. If this is true the kraken itself would have to have been monstrous in size. Remember that these prey animals were the size of sperm whales.

Unfortunately, cephalopods are not known for being easily fossilized. The only rigid part of their body is the beak and fossils of these are rare. We will likely never find bodily evidence of the McMenamins’ kraken (as critics have been quick to point out), but if they are correct we may be looking at some of the best circumstantial evidence we could ever find. And, as the Geological Society press release points out: “[It gets] more creepy: The arranged vertebrae resemble the pattern of sucker discs on a cephalopod tentacle, with each vertebra strongly resembling a coleoid sucker. In other words, the vertebral disc ‘pavement’ seen at the state park may represent the earliest known self portrait.” So let’s see. An ancient cephalopod, larger than whales, that carried a keen predatory and quite advanced intelligence.

Yup, sounds like a kraken to me.

Sources: Geological Society of America, various Wikipedia articles


Posted by on October 18, 2011 in Natural History


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2 responses to “McMenamin’s Kraken

  1. Becoming herself

    October 18, 2011 at 11:51 pm

    Very interesting. The bit about the bones being arranged to suit the whims of some ancient intelligence reminds me of what elephants do with the bones of their dead; they don’t exactly arrange them, but scatter them about using their trunks. Very mysterious.

    • theglyptodon

      October 18, 2011 at 11:58 pm

      That’s a very good point and I hadn’t made that connection. I’m somewhat disappointed this will probably never be fully resolved. Just goes to show how incomplete the fossil record can be.


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