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Krakens and crackpots—again

by Donald Prothero, Nov 06 2013
The alleged "fossil kraken beak" touted by McMenamin as the beak of the giant kraken responsible for arranging ichthyosaur bones into art. The scale is in centimeters, so it is only 5 cm long, too small to belong to any giant squid. In addition, the preservation and other details of the specimen do not resemble a cephalopod beak but some other rock or concretion.

The alleged “fossil kraken beak” touted by McMenamin as the beak of the giant kraken responsible for arranging ichthyosaur bones into art. The scale is in centimeters, so it is only 5 cm long, too small to belong to any giant squid. In addition, the preservation and other details of the specimen do not resemble a cephalopod beak but some other rock or concretion.

Readers of this blog might remember a post two years ago, when I reported on the notorious crackpot paleontologist Mark McMenamin, and his claim that the ichthyosaur skeletons at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in southwest Nevada were artistically arranged by some sort of huge “Kraken” squid. As I detailed in my post, the claim was laughably incompetent and ridiculous. McMenamin claimed that the arrangement of the vertebrae appeared to be deliberate, an arrangement satisfying the “artistic sense” of the giant squid. Clearly he does not know enough about the decay processes of vertebrate skeletons, which frequently leave the vertebral centra either lined up, or toppled over in rows just like we see in the Nevada ichthyosaurs. I vividly remember the buzz at the Geological Society of America (GSA) meeting in 2011, where McMenamin gave his presentation and people were openly laughing at its totally ridiculous claims—or not sure whether they were unwittingly part of an episode of “Punked” and Ashton Kutcher was going to pop out any moment. We all figured it was just another crazy idea by a notorious fringe scientist, and wrote it off to carelessness on the part of the committee that programmed the abstracts (they don’t really have the option of reviewing or rejecting them unless the abstract violates the basic formatting guidelines). The only sad consequence of this whole sordid episode is that the press and internet jumped all over this half-baked story, giving it all sorts of unwarranted coverage. As usual, the media don’t know (or don’t care) that meeting abstracts are unreviewed. They should not be given a lot of press coverage until they are peer reviewed and published. But in this age of 24/7 media coverage of junk, any sensational claim will make the news without any review or background checking or fact checking whatsoever—so McMenamin got his 15 minutes of fame for spewing junk science.

We all thought this was the last we’d hear of this ridiculous claim. So far as anyone can tell, there has been no effort to publish it in a peer-reviewed journal. But then the meeting abstracts and program for the GSA last week in Denver were posted. Amazingly, McMenamin tried the same trick again, and the abstracts committee let it pass a second time! The second attempt doubles down on the stupidity of the original. The first part of the abstract completely misses the point of the criticisms. He claims that the arrangement of vertebral centra could not occur except in strong currents, and the sediments indicate very weak currents.  That’s not what the critics were objecting to! Currents are irrelevant! Vertebrae typically lie in a row when a carcass is rotting, since they are held in place by longitudinal bands of muscles and tendons. When these decay, the centra tend to fall down in a single column, or topple over to form various arrangements in rows. It’s a well-documented phenomenon in vertebrate taphonomy, and many research papers have shown this is a common pattern, even in some European ichthyosaurs which have no evidence of large cephalopods present in their environment. As my colleague Dave Fastovsky pointed out:

There’s a simpler explaination, Fastovsky said. Ichthyosaurs die. They sink to the bottom, where scavengers get to work stripping their skeletons of flesh. The tendons and ligaments that held the vertebrae together rot away or are eaten. “What happens to that vertebral column?” Fastovsky said. “Well, the first thing that happens is it sort of starts to fall over almost like a row of dominoes.” The weird tiled position actually appears to be the most stable position for those falling dominoes to end up at rest, Fastovsky said. “A perfectly reasonable, pedestrian, coherant story emerges that doesn’t require wholesale invention of what is unknown or unprecendented,” he said.

But McMenamin is an invertebrate paleontologist with no expertise in vertebrate taphonomy, so he doesn’t understand this basic anatomical reality. Normally, one should do the appropriate research  and acquire the background in vertebrate taphonomy before making pronouncements to the scientific community about it, but McMenamin apparently thinks he doesn’t need this background to hatch his fantasies.

In the original abstract, McMenamin pointed out that octopi sometimes arrange debris on the sea floor. But these “arrangements” are strictly to provide cover for shelter and camouflage, not “artwork,” and they in no way resemble  the strings of ichthyosaur vertebrae found in the Triassic beds of Nevada.

Then McMenamin goes even further off the deep end. Having failed to do any relevant analysis to the pattern of vertebrae in the rocks, he then claims he has fossils of a giant kraken! There are images of what he claims to be its beak, and others of the rod supporting the back half of the body, known as the pen. First of all, the pen and the beak are much too small to have belonged to an animal of the size that McMenamin claims did the artwork on ichthyosaur skeletons. His photograph of the “beak” is completely useless. Cephalopod beaks are not easily fossilized since they are made only of the organic material chitin, with no calcification, so they are seldom preserved. Given McMenamin’s demonstrable incompetence in other areas, I wouldn’t be surprised if the “beak” he showed turned out to be a large concretion, or a fragment of something else. It looks nothing like a real squid beak.

But even if these specimens were proof that a large “kraken” really existed, there is absolutely no evidence linking the two! Given that the arrangement is natural and needs no weird explanation in the first place, we have no reason to postulate that any organism arranged them, let alone make the leap of faith without any evidence that some large squid did the job. Besides, McMenamin has it all backwards. Today, giant squids are the prey of large marine vertebrates (sperm whales), not the other way around! Back in the Triassic, the whale-sized ichthyosaur Shonisaurus with its huge strong jaws and teeth like those of a sperm whale would not have been prey to any large soft-bodied squid, no matter how big they got—the reverse would almost certainly been the case if they both co-existed. Again, McMenamin shows himself to be woefully ignorant of the relevant facts.

But a ridiculous or poorly thought-out abstract at a national meeting with almost 6000 abstracts is no surprise. Most of the time they engender a few laughs, and a bit of comment, and vanish without being noticed. However, ichthyosaurs and this silly story of “Kraken art” is sensational, and McMenamin did his best to draw media attention to his outlandish ideas. Most of the press reports were typical cut and paste from the press release—the reporters have no science background, so they can’t tell junk from science. Plus, they’re in a hurry to get the story posted and can’t spend the time digging up comments from other scientists. I did get one reporter from National Geographic who contacted me, and used some of my comments in his story. He told me he knew the story was silly,  and was sorry it was getting all the publicity, but it was too late. However, most of them had no critical comments whatsoever—they just regurgitated the press release from McMenamin.

If any of the reporters had bothered to do a bit of research, McMenamin’s track record speaks for itself. He started his career with his “Garden of Ediacara” hypothesis, which has been long debunked and mostly forgotten. He has almost no other significant scientific publications since then. However, he is an avid follower of many crackpot ideas, including the weird morphogenetic ideas of Stuart Pivar, claims  “that mariners of ancient Carthage made it to America long before Eriksson and Columbus, some time around 350 BC.”, and many other fringe notions.

The clincher, however, was revealed when Stephen Meyer published his lousy book misinterpreting paleontology and distorting and falsifying the record of the “Cambrian explosion” (reviewed here). The only paleontologist to give him a positive review (hyped endlessly by the creationists) was none other than Mark McMenamin. We paleontologists were all confused about this. How could any legitimate paleontologist (no matter how incompetent) endorse a book full of such falsehoods as that written by Meyer? Now the truth comes out. In his review of the book, McMenamin reveals that he too is an ID creationist! His review is full of all the usual creationist misunderstandings of evolution, including the randomness of mutation, the alleged insufficiency of natural selection, the argument from entropy, the argument from probability, etc. No wonder he was persuaded by Meyer’s mendacious distortions!

Now if the press would stop publicizing crackpots, and recognize McMenamin’s work for what it is: incompetent and colored by a creationist distortion field. But I don’t think the media will ever bother to check whether their sources are legitimate or not after falling for McMenamin’s garbage twice…


3 Responses to “Krakens and crackpots—again”

  1. Sharon Hill says:

    NOW IT ALL MAKES SENSE!!! Thanks for this Don, you are on the ball.

  2. Mark S says:

    Excellent article Don.

    It is so frustrating, in that there is genuine scientific discoveries that we want to hear about, but get fed rubbish like this. I was very excited last week as there was a new discovery right here in Victoria (Australia, not Canada!) of some fossilised bird footprints at Dinosaur Cove dating from 105 million years ago. But instead garbage like this gets more attention.

    At least thanks to articles like this we can keep our bullshit detectors well tuned.

  3. JimR says:

    I tried to see the Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park the middle of this November, but it was closed due to snow. One could walk around and look at the outside of the mining ghost town of Berlin. I had read this post and was excited to go see it, but that was not to be.

    The motivation for going was an old saw that the Loch Ness monster might be an ichthyosaur that survived 65+ million years. This would be pretty hard in a loch created at the end of the last ice age. Don’t know if I’ll attempt the trek again.

    I would describe the location as west central Nevada. Due to the CA-NV state line, there really isn’t a south west NV.