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Tentacles and their suckers
Story by Andrew Kiraly
A fossil park in central Nevada has become a flashpoint of debate over an unusual theory of what killed the site’s ancient ichthyosaurs. Somebody’s on kraken.
The poor ichthyosaur was only looking for a snack. Dolphin-swift and diving deep, it pointed its toothy snout downward in search of a small mollusk or juicy squid on the ocean floor. But something bigger — and hungrier — lurked in those depths.
Tentacles shot out from the dark — swift as living shadow, a grip as tight as a vise — taking the ichthyosaur by surprise.
The kraken had found its prey.
The ichthyosaur thrashed and flailed, but it was futile. Already the kraken was crushing the ichthyosaur with its powerful tentacles, cracking its ribs, pulling the sea reptile toward its fearsome beak. Then it tore into the ichthyosaur, ripping it open.
The kraken feasted. And when it had its fill, it did not discard the tattered corpse of the ichthyosaur. Rather, it held onto the body, later arranging the ichthyosaur’s spine — one of many it had collected over many months — in a pattern pleasing to the kraken’s inscrutable cephalopod brain. The kraken eventually amassed a collection of ichthyosaur spines, collecting and arranging them around its lair like an obsessed serial killer.
This isn’t a scene from a made-for-TV monster flick. Rather, it’s the scene that plays out in the mind of Prof. Mark McMenamin when he looks at the fossils at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in central Nevada. The geology professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts thinks an unusual ichthyosaur fossil formation there has a cause worthy of a sequel to “Sharknado.”
“My heart goes out to those poor ichthyosaurs, diving down and then, oops,” says McMenamin. His theory: a giant cephalopod killed the ichthyosaurs and artfully arranged their spinal discs — which look a bit like octopus suckers — in a primal self-portrait.
On Oct. 30, McMenamin officially presented his theory at the annual Geological Society of America conference in Denver, and he had a smoking gun. Well, make that a smoking fossil, in the form of what he is confident is a piece of a kraken’s beak. (McMenamin had no such evidence when he originally unveiled his kraken hypothesis in 2011 at the geology conference — to much skepticism and, in some cases, disdain. “I will admit to having a feeling like Dorothy coming back with the witch’s broom, actually having some fossil evidence,” he says.)
[HEAR MORE: Learn more about the Tule Springs fossil bed on "KNPR’s State of Nevada."]
But is the kraken theory an instance of bold theorizing or speculation masquerading as rigorous scientific thought? Since McMenamin released the kraken, so to speak, there’s been a spirited — and often heated — discussion among scientists about the purpose of imagination in science — and, improbably, the role of media hype.
have a little backbone
To you or me, they look like muddy pancakes or Frisbees made of dirt. What are they? They’re the nine rows of fossilized vertebral discs of ichthyosaurs at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park.
But that’s about as much as McMenamin and the rest of the paleontological world agree on. The conventional view of what happened here more than 200 million years ago is better suited to a National Geographic documentary than a SyFy monster mash-up. It proposes that the ichthyosaurs died together — maybe it was a mass stranding in a low tide, maybe a toxic plankton bloom poisoned them. Sea currents oriented their bodies as they sank to the bottom, where ammonites and mollusks nibbled the flesh off their bones. As the muscles and ligaments of the ichthyosaurs’ spines deteriorated, the vertebral discs toppled in a row like dominoes, perhaps nudged a bit by sea-bottom currents.
“McMenamin’s theory isn’t entirely impossible,” says Thomas Holtz, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Maryland. “It’s slightly more realistic than saying the ichthyosaur bones were arranged by aliens. We already have theories that already explain the data that don’t rely on extraordinary claims.” Holtz points out that bones of mass strandings of dolphins and whales are similarly arranged. “An explanation doesn’t require the presence of an organism that we don’t have evidence for, doing something we don’t have any evidence that this organism would do.”
The fact that McMenamin’s kraken theory violates the principle of parsimony is one of the most frequently marshaled criticisms. The principle of parsimony holds that the simplest explanation is often the best. That’s what geosciences Professor David Fastovsky at the University of Rhode Island wrote in a seven-point rebuttal on behalf of the Paleontological Society in response to McMenamin’s presentation in Denver. McMenamin’s theory, while certainly imaginative, requires the existence of an exotic new creature to explain the pattern of the bones.
“Good science is creative science, and the best scientists can be amazingly creative with their theories,” Fastovsky says. “But the next question should be whether the evidence supports it. This was a flash of creative insight, but it’s not particularly well-grounded in a reality we can relate to.”
Undaunted by the storm of criticism, which he’s called “calumnious,” McMenamin stands by his kraken. He’s emboldened by another piece of evidence — a photo of fossils once on display at the former Marjorie Barrick Natural History Museum at UNLV, which show “strange constrictions” to the bones, convincing McMenamin that his kraken had a crushing grip.
“The Berlin ichthyosaur pattern is highly unstable in terms of hydrodynamics,” McMenamin adds, arguing that there’s “no chance at all” that deepwater currents created the spine arrangements. Add to that a growing understanding of the unusual intelligence of modern octopi, and voila — a kraken doesn’t seem so far-fetched. “We’re still learning about the behavior and intelligence of wild octopi, and the more we learn, the weirder it seems,” says McMenamin. “They unscrew jars to get crabs, they use coconut shells as tools. For invertebrates, it’s extreme problem-solving behavior. The potential there (for an intelligent kraken) is extremely high.”
Fastovsky concedes that we don’t have a full understanding of ancient sea current action, but that doesn’t warrant a theoretical leap to a kraken. “The possibility that currents are not the dominant force for moving bone elements in this deep, generally low-energy environment does not mean the alternative hypothesis must be an unknown and poorly defined mythological beast!” he writes in his Paleontological Society response.
Show me the beak
But what about McMenamin’s smoking gun, the purported kraken beak fossil? It hasn’t been independently confirmed as legitimate yet, though McMenamin says he’ll submit it to Patricia Weaver, a cephalopod fossil expert at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in coming weeks. However, beyond that is another whale-sized hurdle: a publication of his theory in a peer-reviewed academic journal. That won’t mean McMenamin’s theory is true, but it will mean that his peers think it has enough legs to deserve a hearing in serious scientific circles. Perhaps surprisingly, McMenamin isn’t so keen on the idea. He suspects his chorus of skeptics is more like a cabal of censors. “Peer review has gotten so political,” McMenamin says. “If a paper like this goes to an editor who’s not objective, it’ll get sent to people who’ll try to torpedo it under the guise of peer review.”
It raises another question about the scientific process: If McMenamin’s fantastic theory hasn’t yet graduated to the scientific big leagues, how did it get such buzz? Because the standard for accepting a paper for presentation at the Geological Society of America conference is dramatically lower than the standard for publication in a scientific journal. It’s not a shortcoming; it’s a feature of the spirit of scientific debate — a willingness to consider and argue over even outlandish ideas.
“The GSA isn’t in the peer-review business,” says Donald Prothero, a professor of geology at Occidental College. “A review committee has to read thousands of abstracts and only rejects a small percentage of them. Unless they’re glaringly flawed or have formatting issues, they’re accepted. It’s not the job of the meeting (to screen theories) anyway. That happens down the line. Where science does its work is in the peer review process.” (Though these days, it also happens in the blogosphere. In his own takedown of the kraken theory on Skepticblog.com, Prothero blasts McMenamin as a “notorious crackpot paleontologist” whose theory is “laughably incompetent and ridiculous.”) However, the GSA also took the step of issuing a press release about McMenamin’s claim, giving it a cast of scientific endorsement that attracted serious media attention that, Prothero says, would have been better spent on more serious developments that emerged from the conference. Still, Prothero says that such misfired hype is unavoidable in an age when scientists have to double as salespeople. “It’s a tug of war between scientists being humble and doing their jobs, versus the fact that we have to sell ourselves to the general public and impress them with our work because money is scarce.”
Perhaps we won’t ever have a definitive answer to what happened to these ichthyosaurs more than 200 million years ago when Nevada was part of the Pacific Ocean. But a kraken? As much as even the most hard-bitten skeptics would like it to be true, those monster tentacles are too much of a reach.
“To my knowledge, there’s a not a single other paleontologist on the planet who considers this reasonable evidence. It has as much bearing on the actual reality of the ancient planet as an episode of ‘Ancient Aliens’ on the History Channel has any bearing on real archeology,” says Holtz. “It’s just pseudoscience, which is a shame. Because krakens would be awesome.”
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