Could an ancient 30-foot long cephalopod have created the world’s first self-portrait?
Every once in a while, a story comes along that it so imaginative, so haunting, that you feel less the scientist and every bit the dreamer. This is one such story.
During the Triassic period, Ichthyosaurs (Shonisaurus popularis), giant marine reptiles measuring up to 45 feet in length, were amongst the top predators of the sea. In the 1950s, world-renowned palaeontologist Charles Camp discovered nine Ichthyosaur fossils laid out in a most peculiar fashion, in what had once been the sea floor, in Nevada’s Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park. The skeletal articulations of the fossilized beasts indicated that they were deposited at the site soon after their death. Studies demonstrated that these animals did not die in a single catastrophic event but rather in a sequential and unrelated fashion. In addition, a very high proportion of the bones were broken, hinting at the possibility that the deaths were far from accidental. Finally, the bones seemed to have been rearranged in an interlocking fashion, creating multiple circular discs with “almost geometric regularity”, like pieces to a puzzle.
When well-known palaeontologist Dr. Mark McMenamin took a look at these fossils, he saw a pattern that no one else had seen before, birthing the Triassic Kraken hypothesis. According to McMenamin, the culprit was none other than the legendary “Kraken”, a 30 metre long squid-like or octopus-like cephalopod, which would have rearranged the bones to resemble a giant cephalopod tentacle complete with sucker-discs. In essence, he hypothesized that the “most intelligent invertebrate” to have ever lived was the author of the world’s first self-portrait.
These findings stirred up quite the controversy at the 2011 Geological Society of America’s annual meeting in October, with many scientists in attendance calling the Triassic Kraken hypothesis extremely far-fetched. Other hypotheses had been put forward since the Ichthyosaur death assemblage’s discovery, including death by phytotoxin poisoning, but none has caused this kind of reaction within the scientific community.
“When you consider that all other explanations for the Ichthyosaur death assemblage have failed, the plausibility goes up. It is currently the leading hypothesis, and none of the critics so far has proposed a fatal or even relatively significant objection” replied McMenamin when asked about the skepticism with which his hypothesis has been greeted.
The behaviour he describes, where the Kraken would have drowned the Ichthyosaurs and dragged them down to its hiding place, is not unheard of. Contemporary species of Giant Octopi are known to wrestle with large prey, such as sharks, and drag them down to a hidden feeding area. Unfortunately, other than this possible self-portrait, there is no other evidence of this giant cephalopod having existed. This is to be expected, however, as the soft-tissue that makes up these invertebrates does not fossilize well. McMenamin’s only hope of proving this animal’s existence would be to discover the squid-pen, the hard internal structure that supports the mantle cavity.
If his proposal is accepted, McMenamin hopes to return to Nevada with a British filmmaker to continue his search for more evidence of the Triassic Kraken. In the meantime, the professor of geology at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts will be working on two papers, one regarding the hypothesis and the other describing the geological site.
There is nothing new about a scientific hypothesis being greeted with doubt. Science has advanced thanks to daring members of its community who have ventured beyond the realm of the probable in order to push the limits of the pre-established notions we guard fiercely and sometimes to a fault. Even if Dr. McMenamin’s hypothesis turns out to be a misguided dreamer’s fantasy, it will have served its purpose by lighting fires under competing palaeontologists, compelling them to dig deeper (no pun intended) in order to explain the mysteries of Earth’s past and the dwellers therein.
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