The Mythical Kraken Might Have Been Real

December 21, 2015 | Reece Alvarez

An old ink drawing illustrating a Kraken swallowing a ship during a storm
Photo credit: Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy - Ellis, R. 1994. Monsters of the Sea. Robert Hale

Fossils have been found that suggest the mythical sea monster known as the kraken may have once roamed the seas preying on whale-size animals.

Ichthyosaurs (“fish lizard” in Greek) were razor-toothed marine reptiles larger than school buses believed to have dominated the oceans of Triassic Period.

But paleontologist Mark McMenamin from Mount Holyoke College has questioned this titan of the deep’s title with evidence that suggests the mighty ichthyosaurs may have been prey for a much larger creature of mythic proportions — the kraken!

Illustration of a whale-like reptile with a long, pointed snout, attacks a smaller, shark-like animal
An artist’s depiction of a prehistoric relative of ichthyosaurs,T. burgundiae. Photo credit: Dmitry Bogdanov (CC BY 3.0)

If you’re imaging a godzilla-like reptile and shouting “release the kraken!” you have the wrong idea.

McMenamin believes the mythical kraken of the 18th century, resembling a monstrous squid- or octopus-like creature believed to devour ships and their crew, may have actually existed millions of years before in the Triassic period.

According to the Geological Society of America, the truth behind the legend can be found at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in Nevada, where the remains of nine 45-foot (14-meter) ichthyosaurs, of the species Shonisaurus popularis, can be found.

These were the Triassic's counterpart to today's predatory giant squid-eating sperm whales. But the fossils at the Nevada site have a long history of perplexing researchers, including the world's expert on the site: the late Charles Lewis Camp of U.C. Berkeley.

SEE ALSO: 6 Animals That Inspired Mythical Creatures

"Charles Camp puzzled over these fossils in the 1950s," said McMenamin. "In his papers he keeps referring to how peculiar this site is. We agree, it is peculiar."

Camp's interpretation was that the fossils probably represented death by an accidental stranding or from a toxic plankton bloom. But no one had ever been able to prove that the beasts died in shallow water. In fact more recent work on the rocks around the fossils suggest it was a deep water environment, which makes neatly arranged carcasses even more mysterious.

"It became very clear that something very odd was going on there," said McMenamin. "It was a very odd configuration of bones."

According to the geological society, the different degrees of etching on the bones suggested that the shonisaurs were not all killed and buried at the same time and it appeared the bones had been purposefully rearranged. This type of behavior has also been observed  in a modern predator known for just this sort of intelligent manipulation of bones.

"Modern octopus will do this," McMenamin said. “I think that these things were captured by the kraken and taken to the midden [a type of repository for shells] and the cephalopod would take them apart."

Photograph of the fossils: two lines of circles (vertebrae) with indents in their centres.
The shonisaur fossils bare marks eerily similar to those left by octopus tentacles. Photo courtesy of Mark McMenamin.

According to McMenamin, some of the shonisaur vertebral disks in the fossil bed were arranged in curious linear patterns with almost geometric regularity. The arranged vertebrae also resembled the pattern of sucker discs on a cephalopod tentacle, with each vertebra strongly resembling a coleoid sucker. 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.

An octopus killing larger ocean predators is not unheard of -- one in the Seattle Aquarium was caught killing a shark on-camera by wrapping its body around the shark and overpowering it.

"We think that this cephalopod in the Triassic was doing the same thing," said McMenamin. "It was either drowning them or breaking their necks."

Among the evidences of the kraken attacks are many more ribs broken in the shonisaur fossils than would seem accidental and the twisted necks of the ichthyosaurs.

Based on materials provided by The Geological Society of Ameria.

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