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Kraken monster ruled ancient seas? Scientists wary of new theory.

Kraken skeptics say a new theory proposing the existence of a real-life 200-million-year-old Kraken sea monster involves too much inference and guesswork to be serious science.

By Staff writer / October 11, 2011

An ichthyosaur found in southern Germany on display.

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An unusual presentation at a scientific conference Monday has many paleontologists demanding: Show me the kraken!

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Geologist Mark McMenamin has invoked the mythical creature from Norse mythology as an outside-the-box explanation for a puzzling assembly of marine fossils in a state park in Nevada. These fossils could actually be a carefully patterned refuse pile left by an enormous, tentacled creature, he says – a creature he dubs a kraken.

The problem, other researchers say, is that neither Nevada's Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, nor any other, similar fossil assemblage around the world has yielded any direct or indirect fossil evidence of a "kraken" – let alone any 200-million to 250-million year old creature capable of arranging its dinner scraps in a pattern.

Dr. McMenamin, who teaches at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., presented his proposal at a Geological Society of America conference in Minneapolis on Monday. He came with flak jacket in tow.

"We're ready for this. We have a very good case," he said.

The period this proposed creature would have populated has long fascinated scientists. Known as the Triassic Period, it lasted roughly 50 million years. It began at the end of the planet's largest mass extinction some 251 million years ago. Researchers estimate that some 96 percent of all marine species and 70 percent of land-based creatures vanished. It ended in another mass extinction, one that would lead to the rise of the dinosarus.

The Triassic "is a time when modern ecosystems come into being," says Hans-Dieter Sues, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. "Almost every group that today is dominant in the world's oceans or on land had either its first appearance in the Triassic or some of its closest relatives first showed up."

One of the period's iconic creatures: large sharp-toothed fish known as ichthyosaurs. One member in particular, Shonisaurus popularis, grew to lengths of up to 50 feet. Nevada's Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park boasts nine fossils of these giants, all bunched in the same general location.

Random fossil pile or kraken lair?

At issue is whether the assembly represents animals who died in a shallow ocean from a mass stranding or an explosive algae bloom, or whether the formation was in the deep sea. Some recent geological analysis has suggested the deep-sea location – the modern-day battleground for sperm whales and their prey, giant squid.

Enter McMenamin and the kraken. A unique pattern of vertebra caught his attention – two rows, neatly set side by side in a manner that make them look nested. Moreover, the bones were scarred in ways that indicated the animals died at different times.

Marine scientists have long noted that octopuses gather up bones, rocks, remains of prey, literally anything they can grab in order to hide the entrances to their dens.

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