The remote Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in central Nevada is filled with slumbering fossils from hundreds of millions of years ago. But in recent years, this sleepy paleo-park has become a flashpoint of scientific controversy — and now it may just be ground zero for a new understanding of aquatic life in the ancient sea that once covered Nevada. The controversy centers on a series of nine fossilized spines of ichthyosaurs that form a tantalizingly geometric pattern. How that happened has baffled paleontologists and biologists for decades: Did a bloom of toxic plankton do the ichthyosaurs in? Did the currents of the ancient sea arrange their vertebral discs in these eerily neat double lines? Or did something kill the ichthyosaurs and place their bones there … arrange them there? Prof. Mark McMenamin of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts has a literally monster theory. The paleontologist believes that a Triassic mega-cephalopod — essentially, yep, a gigantic octopus — killed the ichthyosaurs. And then, like a trophy-collecting murderer straight out of “Dexter,” the prehistoric octo-beast arranged them in a pleasing pattern in its underwater death-lair. McMenamin argued just that in a presentation at the 2011 annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Minneapolis.
A giganto-kraken taking out ancient sea-reptiles the size of school buses? Other paleontologists dismissed him. Science bloggers ridiculed him. All made countless “release the kraken” jokes. “I had people threatening that I’ll never get this peer-reviewed and into scientific literature,” he says. (That’s the science-world version of a major diss.) In his defense, McMenamin points out that modern octopi engage in just this sort of intelligent collecting behavior. And if you have trouble imagining a octopus mustering the muscle to tackle a big fish, simply Google “octopus vs. shark.”
But McMenamin may get the last laugh: On a return visit to the park in May, he found what he believes is hard evidence. “I have the kraken’s fossilized beak fragment,” he says. “As a matter of fact, it’s in my backpack.” Barring unforeseen circumstances, at the Oct. 27-30 Geological Society of America conference in Denver, Colo., he will have delivered a talk about his theory that now includes this latest evidence. “I will admit to having a feeling like Dorothy coming back with the witch’s broom,” McMenamin says. He’s sparked a renewed discussion over ancient sea life — proving that even prehistory isn’t always written in stone.