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Biological Chemistry


Monstrous Artist of the Deep, Cyclopean Catch

by Nader Heidari
November 7, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 45


Credit: National Geographic Wild
This National Geographic Wild video, in which an octopus kills a shark, inspired McMenamin’s kraken theory.and metal powders.the Diet Coke and Mentos experiment at different altitudes—40 ft (12.2 m) below sea level in Death Valley; 6,000 ft (1,829 m) in Zion National Park; and 10,900 ft (3,322 m) in Yosemite National Park—produces different volumes of foam.

A curious cluster of fossils found in the Nevada desert in the 1920s has long piqued the interests of scientists seeking to find out how the remains of ancient ichthyosaurs—giant, school-bus-sized ocean reptiles—came to rest there. Although many hypotheses cite water currents or toxic algae as an explanation, Mount Holyoke College geology professor Mark McMenamin has another idea.

Credit: Jorge Alejandro O. Ruiz Gutiérrez
Killer kraken: Artist’s depiction of a Triassic clash of titans.
Artist’s rendering of a kraken grappling with an ichthyosaurus.
Credit: Jorge Alejandro O. Ruiz Gutiérrez
Killer kraken: Artist’s depiction of a Triassic clash of titans.

The fossils, McMenamin suggests, could have been the work of another creature—perhaps one similar to the mythological kraken, a sea monster often described as a giant squid, octopus, or a mixture of both, said to be large enough to wrap its tentacles around ships at sea and drag them down to Davy Jones’s locker. Modern octopi pile up the remains of their prey in heaps known as middens to conceal their dens. The ichthyosaurs’ remains, McMenamin says, could be part of a trash heap that hid a kraken’s den. Not only that, but the theory, presented at last month’s meeting of the Geological Society of America, claims that the massive cephalopod of myth also had an artistic side, rearranging the bones of its ichthyosaur prey to create a sort of self-portrait.

The idea had quite a few scientists “kraken” up, especially at the thought of a Triassic artist, but McMenamin is sticking to his claim. He says the idea of the massive cephalopod den came to him while studying the fossil site. The cluster of nine ichthyosaurs, each appearing to have been deposited at a different time, may have been a result of predation, he says. After watching a video by National Geographic Wild, “Shark vs. Octopus,” in which an octopus surprisingly kills a shark with relative ease, McMenamin decided that a cephalopod between 15 and 30 meters in length—the current-day colossal squid can grow to up to 14 meters long—could have taken on the ichthyosaurs and deposited their remains in a midden.

There is yet to be any direct evidence of the massive cephalopod, so it is likely that the kraken still resides only in legend. That has not prevented the possibility of such a creature from luring the minds of many a blogger or reporter into the murky depths, as the professor’s hypothesis quickly caused a kerfuffle, leading to a series of reports with headlines such as “Smokin’ Kraken?” And as for why the media ate up the kraken story, Twitter user Josh Rosenau may have said it best: “I don’t care that it’s not true, I want it to be true.”

Although the kraken may still be a monster of myth, a different animal has jumped from a page of legend into a boat of fishermen—the Cyclops Shark. The one-eyed dusky shark fetus was found in the belly of an adult female caught in the Gulf of California.

Credit: Pisces Sportfishing
Cyclops: The one-eyed shark surfaced in the Gulf of California.
Cyclops shark
Credit: Pisces Sportfishing
Cyclops: The one-eyed shark surfaced in the Gulf of California.

Cyclopia is a rare congenital defect in which the orbits of the eye fail to split into two, resulting in a single, centered eye socket. Most animals with cyclopia tend to die early.

The first report of the catch was posted on the blog of Pisces Sportfishing, a recreational fishing company based in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. A commercial fisherman in La Paz, Mexico, reportedly found the fetus, and the Pisces team visited him to get more information. Once the photos reached the Web, many believed the photos to be fakes. In response to the skepticism, the cyclopean creature was submitted to Felipe Galván-Magaña, a shark researcher who confirmed that the critter was indeed real. He mentioned that there have been only about 50 reported cases of similar mutations.


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