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Illustration of a sperm whale in a fight with a kraken (giant squid).

Debate over the possible existence of an ancient kraken (shown fighting a sperm whale in the illustration above) has resurfaced at a scientific meeting.

Photograph by dieKleinert, Alamy

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published October 30, 2013

Image of the 125 Anniversary logo An intelligent ancient squid that rearranged the backbones of its prey into art? Fossil experts call it a fable, but one expert says to believe it.

The "kraken" has resurfaced at a scientific meeting, and is certain to stir controversy once more.

"The Kraken's Back" is the title of the talk presented Wednesday at the annual Geological Society of America (GSA) meeting in Denver by paleontologist Mark McMenamin of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

"I can say we have found the tip of the beak of the Triassic kraken," says McMenamin. His proof? A fossilized squid's "pen"—a chitinous paddle found inside squid mantles—that dates to about 218 million years ago.

Although the newfound fossilized pen, which McMenamin presented at his talk, is only a few inches long and incomplete, the paleontologist estimates that the ancient squid it belonged to was 50 to 100 feet (16 to 30 meters) long. At the meeting he called it "school bus-sized." Modern giant squids may grow to about 40 feet (12 meters) long.

 

A Triassic kraken beak tip found by McMenamin.

Image courtesy Mark McMenamin

 

Most remarkably, at the meeting McMenamin repeated a suggestion he had made previously: that these ancient giant squids made art, arranging the backbones of their prey into mosaics in their lairs, in a bid at self-portraiture.

As evidence, he cited a Nevada State Museum exhibition from three decades ago that had included a display of a mosaic similar to one he had noted in 2011, when he first made this argument, and similar to one found at the fossil site where the pen was discovered. (Read more about sea monsters.)

But others aren't convinced.

Suggesting the kraken made art "is kind of a strange argument," says paleontologist David Fastovsky of the University of Rhode Island in Kingston.

"It is one thing to claim the discovery of a large, ancient squid. But going beyond that takes us far away from what most paleontologists would see as reasonable."

Monster Controversy

In 2011, McMenamin had reported that his team had discovered the lair of an ancient giant squid or octopus at a Nevada fossil site. His evidence, which he cited at the annual GSA meeting that year, is a fossilized arrangement of nine ichthyosaur backbones embedded in a mosaic pattern.

Ichthyosaurs were marine reptiles that resembled dolphins; McMenamin theorizes that they were food for the kraken. He claims the creatures brought their prey down to a trash-filled lair and arranged their backbones into patterns resembling that of suckers lining their arms.

The suggestion had triggered a flood of critical comments from paleontologists, including Donald Prothero of Occidental College in Los Angeles, who called it absurd.

Prothero still feels that way two years later, saying by email that McMenamin "has mined this unreviewed [meeting] abstract for LOTS of free publicity, and gullible reporters think that his work has passed muster because it's presented at these meetings.

"But NOT ONE scientist at these meetings takes him seriously."

McMenamin defended his findings in an interview prior to the presentation, saying the newfound pen fossil provides evidence that critics of his 2011 presentation then called lacking. (Read about a modern-day giant squid.)

McMenamin does regularly present other research at the meeting—for example, he reported the finding of an ancient oversize crustacean from the same era as the kraken, recently published in the Journal of Crustacean Biology.

Kraken Criticism

Given the attention that the kraken received in 2011, the Paleontological Society, a sponsor of the session at the GSA meeting where the pen fossil was presented, asked Fastovsky to respond to its latest emergence.

Fastovsky is more measured in his criticism of the kraken idea, saying that "finding an ancient, giant squid would be a wonderful discovery.

"If we have a fossil pen, then that is good—we can compare it to other fossils and discuss what sort of squid it once belonged to," Fastovsky says. "I think most paleontologists would think that would be great."

However, he points out that squids, unlike octopuses, don't create trash-filled lairs for their food. "So, right there, that is a problem with the 'kraken arranging bones' idea, if what he has found is a squid." (See pictures of today's squid.)

Outside scientists need to analyze the fossil to determine whether it belonged to a squid, he adds.

Furthermore, while McMenamin maintains that the backbones found in mosaic patterns seem to have been ordered in intelligent fashion, Fastovsky disagrees.

He says that the mosaic resembles the sort of assembly that currents would have created over time as rotting ichthyosaur backbones spilled across the ocean floor.

Occam's Razor

The real problem with the kraken notion is that it violates the scientific principle of favoring the simplest possible explanations for natural phenomenon, Fastovsky adds.

"Parsimony is the basic principle behind everything we do in science.

"The extra suggestion of intelligence in the [backbone] patterns is just unnecessary," he says.

"You really have to ask, is this science or not?"

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

31 comments
Karma Kraze
Karma Kraze

Not sure about the evidence since there is no picture of the remains. However, I am open to the idea of the sea beast arranging bones in intelligent fashion, as It has been recorded that other animals have displayed the same behavior.

They laughed when you said the Earth was round too. Is that science too?

 The problem with such notion's is that the simplest explanation does not explain natural phenomena and scientist are only beginning to understand that through observation and less criticism. An animal of that majestic nature, can with-out a doubt, be artistic and intelligent.  

Dave Watson
Dave Watson

Wow I have found lots of pieces of bones can I also claim they came from 100 ft. long ancient animals as well? The evidence is very minuscule at best.

Kat M
Kat M

This makes me so happy. Here I thought that the Kraken was entirely mythological, and now I've discovered that it could possibly have been real. I hope they keep researching this-it's quite fascinating.

Linda Wood
Linda Wood

There are puffer fish who make patterns on the seafloor for mating purposes. Might this be something along the same lines? A nest for their eggs, or a pleasing invitation to females? "Art" may not be the case, but the patterns are there, so there must be a reason. Since most animals are driven by the desire to procreate and so survive, could this not be a compelling reason to do such a thing? Open minds will discover more than closed ones, and I think that Dr. McMenamin may be onto something, even though he may have grasped the wrong end of the handle.

Martin Codd
Martin Codd

Not much evidence really, to prove one way or the other

William Wangge
William Wangge

Don't worry lad, we got Capt. Jack. He kills kraken. :D

Dr Bob Rhoda
Dr Bob Rhoda

As the biology teacher said in the movie "Evolution", 

"GREAT GOO-GA-MOOGA."  

We have seen composite skeletons of all kinds of ancient critters so WHY NOT.  If indeed this was a squid, it was REALLY a WHOPPER!!

Pass the Calamari sauce PLEASE!!


Bart Vandenhaute
Bart Vandenhaute

i think it's fascinating, but as always there is to much speculation, and not enough evidence to state something imo...

they should first research if it's indeed a squid and not an octopus. but i do know that squids and octopus are very intelligent animals, they can solve puzzles, avoid traps, confuse prey with "light" shows and so on..

stating that they made art is a bit rediculous imo. animals don't do art!! it doesn't help them survive in any way so they don't do it (especially in the deep sea), simple as that.  the ocean currents scatter the bones of the ichtyosaurs i think. the ocean scatters anything that dies there. 

anyhow, findings like this should simply be investigated, and not only by 1 person, but many different, critics and believers.

Lewis L
Lewis L

Get ready for a "History" channel "documentary" about this tabloid science 

v. constantino
v. constantino

Intelligent? The picture was unrealistic, how can the squid swallow the huge prey, more than twice it size...perhaps the author consider a more intellectual image. Be logical...

Fernando Dos Santos
Fernando Dos Santos

It would be interesting to all biologists and researchers, see or be informed of the case of the Soviet whaling in the '50s, found a carcass of a whale with suction marks that indicated a squid out of the ordinary size in Pacific waters. Archives merchant that era can report the amazement and the escape of these men. The oceans and seas has more secrets than the Moon and Mars together.  

Chloe Garcia
Chloe Garcia

why would it be strange to say that a squid was/is intelligent? we are constantly using animals for all sorts of reasons because they are smart and do have brains. Just because its hundreds and thousands of years old does not mean it couldn't have been smart.

Johnny O
Johnny O

Thank God it's extinct! Now - if only we could be sure that "Megalodon" is 100% gone from our oceans as well.

Rob Wijngaarden
Rob Wijngaarden

What whe know about the deep is so poor more people get into space then land on the deep from the Marianentrog bellow 500 meter whe know as much as a baby can read.

Mushra Rambo
Mushra Rambo

@William Wangge  Took me a moment to realize you didn't mean Harkness; "what episode of Torchwood had a kraken??" 

Connor Smith
Connor Smith

@v. constantino A good point, but that's actually an image of a sperm whale attacking a giant squid (not anything that's perfectly related to the article). The whale would be eating the squid, not the other way around. So, yeah, a different image could have been better, but I don't know what you would use, since there's not much documentation of any sort of kraken ;)

Esther Barnett
Esther Barnett

@v. constantino I'm not a squid expert, but I don't think that they swallow their prey whole. The beak (or pen) suggests that they bite chunks out of their prey's flesh. 

 On another note,  how do we know this isn't an octopus? Also,  I  speculate that if it indeed made the rings, it has less to do with art and more to do with egg rearing.

I

Nicole Bonuso
Nicole Bonuso

@Chloe Garcia 

But that's not the argument.   The author is stating that there's a huge Kraken nearly 250 Million years old without providing evidence of an actual body.  


Rodney Howard
Rodney Howard

@Chloe Garcia Actually squid are thought to be very intelligent.  Who knows what they're capable of, or were capable of.

Caroline LeBreton
Caroline LeBreton

@Johnny O I don't think you should wish any creature to be extinct - seeing as we can barely keep our current species alive.

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