For the last week or so, the popular science press has been gushing over the announcement that besides a giant Triassic kraken killing and eating giant ichthyosaurs, it not only arranged their bones after but even arranged their bones in what may be the very first self portrait. How exciting! A huge, intelligent, self-aware cephalopod lived in the Triassic and actively hunted and ate 45 ft. long ichthyosaurs — its a ceph lovers fantasy come true! There is of course, one small catch — there is no evidence that this Triassic kraken actually existed.
The story in a nutshell. At Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in Nevada the remains of nine 45 ft. ichthyosaurs, Shonisaurus popularis, have been confusing researchers since at least the 1950s, partially due to the close proximity of the nine ichtyosaurs to each other and the odd arrangement of their fossilized vertebrae. Recently, Mark McMenamin spent some time at the site and came up with the idea that press has been running with this week — a giant, ichthyosaur-eating cephalopod that arranges bones of its meals in self portraits. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to back up this idea.
The reasoning that spring boarded these conclusions into the public eye goes something like this (from the press release) :
1) A weird arrangement of the fossils made McMenamin think they bones had been purposefully arranged, and that modern octopus are known for the “intelligent manipulation of bones.”
It doesn’t seem that there is much evidence for modern cephalopods intelligently manipulating the remains of their meals. Sure, octopus tend to get rid of remains, but there appears to be no purpose to the arrangement beyond moving them away from the den. Other cephalopods like squid, do not seem to manipulate remains at all. Also, just because McMenamin thinks the bones were purposefully arranged doesn’t mean that they were — he has got to show that he has more than just his thought about the matter.
2) “The proposed Triassic kraken, which could have been the most intelligent invertebrate ever, arranged the vertebral discs in double line patterns, with individual pieces nesting in a fitted fashion as if they were part of a puzzle.
There is no evidence of this kracken. None. It’s a cool idea, but there are lots of cool ideas. The argument that aliens arranged the bones seems just as likely as an ancient undiscovered sea monster arranged them
3) “The arranged vertebrae resemble the pattern of sucker discs on a cephalopod tentacle” and “the vertebral disc “pavement” seen at the state park may represent the earliest known self portrait”.
The arranged vertebrae also resemble red blood cells, pelletized fish food, teeth and any number of other things. You can see purpose in just about anything, as PZ Myers says “a line of discs is being seen as a picture of a cephalopod tentacle, classic pareidolia. This is trivial: dump a pile of Necco wafers on a table, and I’ll see a picture of squid suckers.” Why it should be thought of as a self portrait seems to be more fantastical hoping.
The end of the press release states “… the evidence for the murderous kraken is circumstantial, which may leave some scientists rather skeptical. But McMenamin is not worried. “We’re ready for this,” he said. “We have a very good case.” However, nothing besides the press release has been forthcoming which seems to mean that the case that McMenamin has is really only circumstantial. I hope I am wrong and there is some fantastic, compelling evidence arising (but I am not holding my breath). Until then, the idea of this kraken resides next to the idea of sasquatch, unicorns, Gandalf and Magneto in my mind as things I wish actually existed, but don’t.