Seeing A Cephalopod In Ancient Bones

The origins of a stash of 220-million-year-old, 40-plus-foot-long ichthyosaur bones at a Nevada site have long puzzled paleontologists. Paleontologist Mark McMenamin explains his controversial theory that the bones were put there by a giant, ancient octopus-like creature.

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IRA FLATOW, host: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. If you attended a session, Session 120 at this week's Geological Society of America meeting, you heard quite a story: A murder mystery, really, that started about 220 million years ago. Here's what we know about the evidence, actually fossil evidence.

Nine giant ichthyosaurs, swimming dinosaurs about 45 feet long, died or were killed, and their bones were arranged in what looks like a pattern. The fossils were discovered in the 1950s in what is now Nevada, and since that time, paleontologists have been puzzling, just puzzling over the remains.

Were the ichthyosaurs stranded in shallow water? Did they die in a toxic algal pool? And at Monday's meeting, paleontologist Mark McMenamin threw his own theory into the ring. The ichthyosaurs, he says, were murdered by a giant octopus-like creature, a kraken, who arranged the bones in - well, in sort of a self-portrait.

Sounding a lot like science fiction? Some scientists say so. But Dr. McMenamin says he has proof, and he's here now with us. He is a paleontologist and professor of geology at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Mark McMenamin, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MARK MCMENAMIN: Hello, Ira, how are you?

FLATOW: Hi there. You really don't offer a whole lot of proof for this theory, do you?

MCMENAMIN: Well, the study of fossil octopods, as they're called, is beset by a lack of direct evidence. We could take the entire octopus fossil record and put it into a suitcase. There are only eight known species.

FLATOW: And so this basically then is a hypothesis of yours, trying to explain the fossils you found.

MCMENAMIN: Yes it is. And the case that we built is basically a case based on the placement of the shonisaur ichthyosaur bones. And this is not an unusual way to proceed when you're dealing with a soft-bodied predator. For example, there are Miocene octopuses that are known only from the bore holes that they made in the scallops. No one's ever found a fossil of the octopus, but no one doubts that those octopuses existed.

FLATOW: So give us a scenario of what you think might have happened at that spot.

MCMENAMIN: Well, the site appears to have been deposited in relatively deep water. And so what I believe happened is that there was a large cephalopod of some sort, possibly belonging to the vampire squid lineage, that would grab onto these ichthyosaurs as they were diving into deeper water for their prey, would immobilize them in some way, kill them and then carry them down to the sea floor and deposit them on a midden.

FLATOW: And would they arrange their remains there somehow?

MCMENAMIN: There seems to be evidence that they did that, if the bones have been meddled with, shall we say, and some of them seem to be organized into almost geometric patterns. Now, you have to keep in mind that there are insufficient currents at this depth to arrange the bones, so current action couldn't do it. There's enough mud in the environment still to show that there were no strong currents.

And in any case, the specimen U array is in a hydrodynamically unstable position. If there were currents, it wouldn't end up looking like that.

FLATOW: So you're saying there must be - these beings that did this, they must have some sort of intelligence enough to know how to create this sort of self-portrait, as you describe it.

MCMENAMIN: That's one hypothesis. It's also possible that they had some kind of rote instinct, perhaps some kind of breeding display or behavior that led them to arrange these things by instinct. But the intelligence option is a viable interpretation at this point, and that's the one I would prefer at this point.

FLATOW: And your hypothesis has been greeted with quite a bit of skepticism, has it not?

MCMENAMIN: It has indeed, and, you know, to a certain exist rightly so. But as John K. Wright(ph) once put it, outrageous hypotheses arouse interest, invite attack and thus serve useful fermentative purposes in the advancement of geology.

So what we're trying to do here is advance the science, and I think we've made a huge step forward. At the Geological Society meeting, in fact, we kind of hit a geological grand slam. We describe the oldest chiton, which is the oldest animal fossil, the oldest evidence for the trilobite ancestor; we believe we've solved the Shonisaur murder mystery; and now we're announcing the identity of this serial killer, the Triassic kraken.

FLATOW: Yeah, we don't know ourselves what's the right way to pronounce it.

MCMENAMIN: Yeah, I've been getting - I've been doing interviews all over the world. I spoke to New Zealand just the other day. Apparently it's kraken in Britain and kraken in New Zealand.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Well, I want to play an audio clip. We talked with Eric Scott, curator of paleontology at the San Bernardino County Museum, one of the skeptics, and just so we can hear what they had to say. Here's what he had to say about your claim.

ERIC SCOTT: Other than the paper itself, other than the presentation itself, there isn't any hard evidence supporting the existence of one of these krakens. What has happened, seemingly, is that the authors see what they interpret to be a pattern in the ichthyosaur remains, and they are proposing an explanation that in their view might explain what they're seeing.

And they're basing it on comparison with things like modern octopuses, which are known to create what are known as midden piles, but there's a bit of an extrapolation. Number one, octopuses don't create midden piles with giant fish like ichthyosaurs, so you'd have to be talking about a large animal. And number two, octopi don't create midden piles that show patterns.

And so these authors have taken it further and argue not only was this a giant cephalopod, but it had rudimentary intelligence, as well, and that's an absolutely extraordinary claim. And generally in science, if you have an extraordinary claim of that nature, you have to have extraordinary evidence to back it up.

You can look at things and see what appears to be design. I can see shapes in clouds or rock formations that make me think of birds or turtles or spaceships or what have you. That doesn't mean that they're anything but clouds or anything but rock formations. And so the appearance of design isn't enough to argue that it has to be design. You actually have to then take it the next step and rule out other alternatives. And from the evidence that's been presented, that's now what happened here.

FLATOW: How do you react to that assessment?

MCMENAMIN: Well, I would say two things, first that - as I mentioned, the interpretation of the octopus fossil record is going to - it's going to demand that we make certain inferences about their existence. For instance, the Oichnus ovalis octopus made the boreholes in the shells that I mentioned.

There's another type known as the Oichnus excavatus, a different type of octopus, again known only from its boreholes. And so this is commonly taken in paleontology as the standard evidence for determining the presence of an ancient octopus.

And with regard to the idea that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, that's a quote from Carl Sagan, that is something that I would certainly agree with, but I think that in this case, we have the extraordinary evidence.

We have nine gigantic ichthyosaurs whose skeletons show twisted necks, broken ribs and then pieces of the bones or skeletal elements have been organized in a very non, shall we say, natural way. This to me is extraordinary evidence, and it demands explanation and has eluded the explanation or has eluded proper explanation by paleontologists for a generation now. It's time that we figured this out.

FLATOW: Is there any way to find evidence of the giant sea monster that might have done this?

MCMENAMIN: Well, that is something that possibly could be done, and I'm in discussions currently about how we might go about locating evidence for this creature. It really depends on what kind of cephalopod it is. Now, if it was a squid-like creature, there is a significant chance of finding the fossil remains of the squid pen, which as a fossil remain would be called the gladius. And the gladius, a sword-shaped structure inside of the squid, is actually known as a fossil from Cretaceous strata in the Cretaceous Interior Seaway in North America.

A number of these specimens are known. They're huge. Some of these animals are thought to have gotten up to about 11 meters in length. So there is a fossil record for very large squid-like creatures.

If we're talking about an octopus, it's going to be somewhat more difficult but not impossible to find something like a very large beak or possibly egg cases that have been permineralized. There may be a way to do this.

FLATOW: In reading the research on this discovery and your hypothesis, I read some interesting stories that one of the - the birth of the germination of this idea came from actually watching what goes on in real aquariums, about the hunting that goes on. Describe that.

MCMENAMIN: In 2005, the Seattle Aquarium was having a problem. Something was killing the sharks in their large shark tank, and they couldn't figure out what it was. So they set up a video camera to catch the culprit, and they found out that it was a Pacific octopus that they had introduced to the tank.

This octopus was rising up out of a crevice, wrapping its tentacles around a shark, killing it and then carrying it off and depositing it in a particular place. It's an amazing piece of footage. Just for your listeners, if you want to see this, just go to YouTube and search for octopus versus shark.

And this is what we believe is happening here in the Triassic, that some very large octopus-like creature, scaled up to be a match to the ichthyosaurs, is doing the same thing.

FLATOW: How big would the ichthyosaur have been?

MCMENAMIN: The ichthyosaurs are known to be about, you know, 45 feet long.

FLATOW: Wow, so it would - just like we see in those pictures of the sea monsters grabbing a hold of the whole ship. It would be about that big.

MCMENAMIN: Precisely. It would be very similar to those woodcuts and those old images except instead of a wooden ship with masts, substitute the Shonisaur ichthyosaur, and that's what we envision happening.

FLATOW: Will you be publishing a paper on this?

MCMENAMIN: I'm working on two papers right now. One is a description of - of our hypothesis regarding the site. And then the second is a review paper that examines all of the hypotheses, their strengths and weaknesses that have been applied to the Berlin ichthyosaur site.

FLATOW: Well, thank you for taking time to explain this. It's certainly interesting mystery.

MCMENAMIN: Thanks very much.

FLATOW: You're very welcome. Mark McMenamin is a paleontologist, professor of geology at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. We're going to take a break, and when we come back, we're going to talk about "Fool me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America." Shawn Otto will be with us, our number, 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, talking about science and politics next up. Stay with us.

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