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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.

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McMenamin explained that the bones in Nevada looked to be placed there on purpose. And the pattern of arrangements for the vertebra suggested to him a higher level of intelligence than one might expect from a mere piling of bones. One pattern of side-by-side lengths of vertebra has the look of a neatly arranged suckers on a squid's tentacle.

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"I think that these things were captured by a kraken and taken to the midden" to be dismembered, McMenamin said in a prepared statement.

Without fossil evidence of a tentacled predator, however, many researchers are highly skeptical of the notion of a Triassic kraken, let alone an animal capable of its own kind of performance art.

Patterns also have random sources, notes Dr. Sues. If the Shonisaurus died in a mass stranding, for instance, their bodies could well have fallen one on top of another, allowing for the pattern to form as the bodies decomposed and the vertebra settled into place.

"I've been to Ichthyosaur State Park and I've worked in marine Triassic rocks in Nevada for a number of years," he says. The area essentially represents a mass burial ground for ichthyosaurs in a shallow sea, he says.

If it's true, how do you prove it?

Indeed, it's difficult to know how to characterize McMeniman's proposition, he says, because it's inherently untestable in the absence of fossil evidence for a kraken-like creature from the same period.

Typically, paleontologists find a creature's fossil remains first, sometimes starting with a small portion of the skeleton, then try to build a more complete picture as more bones emerge. Only then can they try to begin to piece together its life and times.

If such a creature had structures comparable to squids' beaks or the bony hooks inside some tentacle suckers, the bones at the park would show far more damage then they do, Sues says.

Paleontologist Thomas Holtz Jr. notes that McMeniman cited recent work suggesting a deep ocean, and so another explanation for the assemblage of fossils may be in order.

"Fair enough," says Dr. Holtz, who is based at the University of Maryland. "I'll go with that. It is the next step that is the giant leap: Bunch of dead ichthyosaurs, therefore giant cephalopods for which we have no evidence."

That said, he continues, one could take a closer look at the side-by-side strings of vertebra, for instance, to seen if they are lined up in the same order in which the individual bones aligned naturally.

If they do, he says, it suggests "that's just the way they fell apart." An intentional re-arrangement would likely shift the bones out of their natural order and perhaps even mix bones from different individuals.

It also would be helpful to turn to marine and soil scientists to better pin down the nature of the marine soils at the site and to see if comparable patterns of bone arrangements appear naturally when modern whales die in groups.

In the end, he says, looking at the way the fossils have been preserved and the possible causes, far simpler explanations exist for the Nevada assemblage.

In principle, it's possible that the Triassic hosted large squid- or octopus-like cephalopods, Dr. Holtz says. The fossil record does yield evidence of large squids from the Cretaceous Period, some between 65 million and 100 million years ago, he notes.

But at this point, the notion of a Triassic kraken "is too many steps away from the evidence to call it science," he says.

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