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October 11th, 2011

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Tuesday, October 11th, 2011 03:05 pm
In a brief lull after lunch today, I happened upon a link to a cool-sounding science story: Giant Triassic Kraken Lair Discovered!. The gist of the story is that there's a fossil bed of ichthyosaurs in Nevada that's puzzling: nine bus-sized fossils were found in the same place, with no sign of how they all died. There's evidence that the location of the carcasses was in deep water when they were deposited: how did they all wind up in the same place?

Now paleontologist Mark McMenamin claims to have the answer. Based on some etching on the bones, he suggests that the icthyosaurs died elsewhere and were carried to this central location by some other creature. Modern-day octopuses collect bones in that way, so he suggests that there was a vast Triassic cephalopod (which he dubs a "kraken") that collected and indeed hunted these bus-sized aquatic reptiles (in the same way that a modern octopus may attack a shark). Why have we never found any trace of this kraken? Because cephalopods are made almost entirely of soft tissues that don't fossilize well.

But that's not all! Some of the bones in the fossil deposit are arranged in surprisingly regular patterns, with the disk-like vertebrae packed close together almost as if placed there intentionally... so McMenamin, looking at the huge patterns of close-packed circles, goes on to claim that the bones were knowingly arranged by the kraken as a self-portrait of the suckers on its arms! In words from his conference press release, the "vertebral disc 'pavement' seen at the state park may represent the earliest known self portrait," and the kraken "could have been the most intelligent invertebrate ever".

On the one hand, I'm tremendously intrigued: I've long wondered just how certain we can be that intelligent life has never arisen on Earth before. But it only takes a moment's thought to develop a lot of skepticism about this story. On the basis of a single moderately confusing reptile fossil site, McMenamin has hypothesized not just a race of ginormous killer octopuses (no trace of which has ever been found or previously suggested) but a race of intelligent, artistic ginormous killer octopuses. Cool though it may sound, the leaps of logic in that story are laughably vast.

Does this Geological Society of America conference by chance have a crackpot session? (And why are they issuing press releases about this sort of raw speculation?)