Ichthyosaur bones: clear evidence of kraken lair
A well-known paleontologist found the lair of the heretofore-mythical kraken, proving that a hyper-intelligent giant squid hunted schoolbus-sized ichthyosauruses before breaking their necks, drowning them, and bringing them home to its pad on the bottom of the sea. After feasting on the delicious sea reptile, the kraken felt artistic and made a self-portrait, arranging their bones in a pattern resembling the suckers on its tentacle.
Unfortunately, this insane story isn’t a tale from a science-fiction novel. It was actually stated in a news release from the Geological Society of America and credulously regurgitated by many news sources covering it, taking the, uh, not entirely rock-solid claims made by Mount Holyoke College paleontologist Mark McMenamin at face value.
Ahem. Let’s be clear: there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of such a creature. It doesn’t even pass the most basic tests of common sense: where is the proof? There is none. But the coverage of the story would lead you to believe otherwise. Paleontologist-writer Brian Switek nails this point in his excellent write up from yesterday:
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Esteemed scientist and science communicator Carl Sagan reminded us of that throughout his career, but the message didn’t sink in at some newdesks. All you have to do is track the news of the “kraken” to see that recycling press releases often counts for “science news” right now. Jeanna Bryner of LiveScience swallowed the big squid story whole and had her version regurgitated at FOX and CBS News. Dean Praetorius of the Huffington Post, Houston Chronicle’s “Sci Guy” Eric Berger, and TG Daily’s Kate Taylor also took the bait. Who could resist a sensational, super-sized squid? Only Cyriaque Lamar of io9 sounded a minor note of skepticism — “But the possibility of finding that which is essentially a gargantuan mollusk’s macaroni illustration?”, Lamar wrote, “That’s the kind of glorious crazy you hope is reality.” Leave it to science bloggers like PZ Myers to point out how ridiculous this media feeding frenzy is.
Everybody loves a good story, especially about sea monsters, as Sarah Simpson points out in Discovery News today. “But when you start hearing from scientists that those same sea monsters were expressing themselves artistically … it may be time for journalists to question the difference between a good story and solid science.” Exactly.
Zero stories I’ve read so far sought outside comment about the finding, so I did. Michael Caldwell, a paleontologist at the University of Alberta said that if he’d read the story in a different format, i.e. The Onion, he would have thought it was a joke. The abstract put forward by McMenamin and the Geological Society of America, he said, is “complete, total, and utter non-science.” Marshall University researcher F. Robin O’Keefe agreed that none of McMenamin’s claims were supported by evidence and said that this kind of speculative work didn’t do the field of paleontology any favors. “We fight hard enough to be taken seriously as it is,” he said.
McMenamin says he’s ready for detractors, and that he has a “very good case.” But convincing other paleontologists is going to be a lot harder than getting his press release into a bunch of news outlets. Short of a real, live Pablo Pi-kraken going to work with easel and palette, it’s going to be a pretty hard sell.
Reference: McMenamin, Mark A.S. and Schulte McMenamin. Triassic kraken: the Berlin ichthyosaur death assemblage interpreted as a giant cephalopod midden. Abstract presented 10 October 2011 at The Geological Society of America annual meeting in Minneapolis, Minn. Link.
Image credit: Mark McMenamin via Geological Society of America