The Kraken ate my homework

The Kraken is or was a gigantic sea monster said to have dwelt in the North Atlantic, off the coast of Iceland and Norway.  Although sea-dragons and worms have been reported since the ancient world, the term Kraken was not used until the mid-18th century, when Bishop Pontoppidan used it to refer to a sea monster, a species that Linnaeus briefly recognised and gave a Latin name to. In the lectures and book we discuss the rise of this mythology used to explain mysterious marine occurrences at a time when much of the marine world was unknown and often downright terrifying.  During the 18th and 19th centuries many reports of Kraken (in modern German the Kraken is both singular and plural) were published, often with excellent and fanciful illustrations. It was not until the 1870s when a number of the hitherto unknown giant squids (Architeuthis dux) were washed ashore near Newfoundland and could be examined that a possible explanation of the Kraken was forthcoming.  That did not stop popular authors, screenwriters etc. invoking the Kraken wherever possible, but at least halted the use of the expression in the scientific literature.  Or did it?

Fast forward to this October, when Mark McMenamin (of Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts USA) presented a paper at the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting in Minneapolis.  In this (abstract available here) he hypothesised an explanation for an unusual assemblage of ichthyosaur bones found in a Nevada State Park; bones from nine ichthyosaurs, predatory marine reptiles about 15 m long, deposited about 228 million years ago. This assemblage has occasioned much interest since it was discovered in 1928 and many questions remain unanswered, including why are so many dead ichthyosaurs found in one place?  McMenamin suggests that these bones are the remains of the lair of a gigantic predatory cephalopod, which he terms the Triassic Kraken, twice the size of the modern colossal squid, which caught and brought back the reptiles to its den to dismember and eat. 

Although octopods have lairs, squids, including the giant squid do not, but the kraken at least as imagined by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in The Kraken, does, living ‘Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea’ in ‘many a wondrous grot and secret cell’ where he is ‘battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep’.

If that was not sufficient, McMenamin then proposes that this Kraken was the world’s first artist, arranging the reptile vertebrae in a pattern that resembles the pattern of sucker discs on a cephalopod tentacle, and thus that this cephalopod ‘which could have been the most intelligent invertebrate ever’ created the earliest known self-portrait.  I think he has been reading far too much H.P. Lovecraft!

As you might expect, this story has caught the imagination of the media: a quick Google search of ‘McMenamin Kraken’ today came up with ‘about 121,000 results’, and the title of some of the articles says it all:

‘Kraken versus ichthyosaur: let the battle commence’

‘Artistic mega-octopus may topple ichthyosaur from top of Triassic’

‘Unleash the Kraken!’

‘Seeing a Cephalopod in ancient bones’

‘Giant sea monster discovered in desert’

‘Triassic Park – the last word in nothing’

‘Kraken or Krakpot?’

‘Giant prehistoric Kraken may have sculpted self-portrait using ichthyosaur bones’

‘Smokin’ Kraken’

‘The giant, prehistoric squid that ate common sense’

You can easily follow some of the reactions to this story on the web.

Part of the role of science is to occasionally think the unthinkable, and see if the resultant idea has any merit before one’s peers, and this is what McMenamin has done, along with providing a great story.  I think it would be fair to say, in this case, that few of his peers agree with McMenamin’s hypothesis.  And, for those of you taking the module, I am afraid I won’t be accepting (unless backed up by very good evidence) the excuse given in the title of this piece as a valid reason for you not handing in your end of term essay on time at the end of the week!

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