I-Team: New theory of a bigger, badder ancient sea predator - 8 News NOW

I-Team: New theory of a bigger, badder ancient sea predator

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LAS VEGAS -- Scientists are in heated disagreement about which ancient monster might have ruled the prehistoric seas in what is now Nevada.

The state is home to one of the world's greatest concentrations of ichthyosaur remains, which is why the ichthyosaur is the state fossil. But was there a bigger, badder denizen of that ancient ocean?

The author of a controversial theory is back with what he says is new evidence.

Nevadans have an emotional investment in ichthyosaurs. Part of their appeal is that they ruled the seas for millions of years, as the biggest and most ferocious predators around.

But what if there was another monster, one that literally ate ichthyosaurs for lunch? A scientist who first proposed this theory a few years ago generated worldwide debate, and a lot of scorn, but he is back for more and says he has new evidence to prove the existence of a creature of lore and legend- the kraken.

Hideous and humongous, the kraken has been part of human lore as far back as Greek mythology. Stories about its gigantic tentacles pulling down entire ships were whispered by 12th century Vikings and resurfaced well into modern times.

The theory was that it must have been a type of supersized cephalopod, like a squid or octopus, which was good enough for modern movie makers but a real life kraken? One that feasted on the known ruler of the prehistoric seas?

"At this point, the kraken hypothesis is the best thing going to explain this longstanding paleontological mystery," geology professor at Mt. Holyoke College Mark McMenamin said.

When McMenamin first pitched his theory a few years ago, some colleagues said he might as well have been talking about space aliens killing the dinosaurs. Nevada writer Andrew Kiraly wondered if the professor had been smoking kraken.

"I assure you we were completely sober when we were at Berlin ichthyosaur. We came across this deployment of bones that seemed very strange," McMenamin said.

The heart of the debate is in central Nevada, adjacent to an old ghost town that is part of the Berlin Ichthyosaur State Park, home of one of the greatest concentrations of ichthyosaur remains anywhere.

Ichthyosaurs were reptiles which returned to the seas hundreds of millions of years ago. the earliest ones were enormous.

Park rangers like Robin Riggs describe the creatures as being 56-feet long and 40 tons, ruling the top of the food chain.

Rangers admit they are protective of the ichthyosaurs status as the pre-eminent monsters of the deep, so they don't support the kraken theory, but they are happy the controversy has drawn more visitors to the park.

This is what they come to see, a protected and unusual deposit of ichthyosaur remains. Nine of them laid out as if someone or something had stacked them in a lunchbox. An overlay gives you a better view of what is preserved in the rocks, one big pile of ichthyosaur fossils.

"I was struck coming into the fossil house quarry how strange it looked. It just doesn't look like a natural assemblage of bones like you would see of a dinosaur. There are a manipulation of these skeletons, that have been pulled out and organized into geometrical patterns," McMenamin said.

The prevailing view is that these ichthyosaurs were poisoned by something like red tide and all settled in a crevice or underwater ravine. McMenamin says he has proven that currents alone couldn't have arranged them this way. He thinks it is more likely they were snatched up a kraken, which snapped their spines and stacked them up like trophies.

In a soon to be released paper, he presents new evidence from Germany where an ichthyosaur showed interesting type of damage.

"His head had been twisted like this all the way around, 180 degrees. And the skeleton is otherwise undamaged. So how do you explain something twisting and breaking the neck of an ichthyosaur, twisting it around? It would require a lot of strength," McMenamin said.

The biggest problem for this theory is that there are no kraken fossils. Cephalopods are made of squishy stuff that doesn't last all that long. McMenamin team is coming back to Berlin soon to continue the quest.

"We are going to be seeking direct evidence for the kraken creature. That will be a difficult thing to do paleontologically but we are going to give it a try," McMenamin said.

And if it attracts more visitors, so much the better.

"I've seen quite a few groups coming out and specifically asking about kraken," ranger Riggs said.

Whether he finds kraken remains or not, this research has already led to the discovery of a previously unknown crustacean and other advances as well.

The Berlin Ichthyosaur State Park gets about 12,000 visitors per year, not a big number because of its remote location. The largest percentage of foreign visitors come from Germany. They come to get a look at America's version of Berlin.

To read McMenamin's original research paper, go to gsa.confex.com.

To see more on the ichthyosaur park, go to parks.nv.gov.

To reach more on McMenamin's theories, go to news.nationalgeographic.com

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