The kraken is a gigantic octopus of legend (left) shown in a 1801 drawing by Pierre Denys, based on descriptions by French sailors. Vertebral disks of a shonisaurus (right), a whale-like marine reptile, were found in Nevada.
We all enjoy a tall tale. Cultures with seafaring traditions are especially ripe in what seem like the tallest sea monster tales of all: hydra, kraken, sirens, scylla, leviathans, assorted serpents and mermaids. Usually the stories are never confirmed and usually baseless.
Then again, some of the tales are based on something, or so we are learning as marine scientists plumb the depths and discover some pretty weird creatures. The bottom line: There really are bizarre, unexpected, totally startling monsters found in the seas. And the very worst of these is the most unexpected.
Sea monsters are truly global. This one from Japan serves as the villain for the classic maiden in distress, who awaits rescue by her hero. The poor monsters are almost always cast as the bad guys. And so they usually end hacked to pieces; fish food.
But is there any truth behind these sea serpent tales?
Credit: NOAA/ Bloodydecks.com
Improbable, But True
Maybe it's the oarfish. It looks too monstrous to be true. It can grow many meters long, has strikingly bright silver scales, scarlet fins and some ornate headgear that more than explains why some call it a roosterfish. If only it were a reptile, it'd be a true sea serpent.
Alas. It is a fish. A very weird and beautiful fish, but still a fish.
Largest Serpent of All
There are also other, newfound "sea serpents" our sea-going ancestors never imagined. This one was spotted by a satellite coiling off the south coast of Japan's Hokkaido island.
What do we know about it? 1) It's arguably one of the largest organisms on Earth, 2) It swallows ships, engulfs islands and generally does what it wants, and 3) We're darned lucky it's made of plankton.
Research into such massive blooms and the individual plankton cells that comprise them has revealed surprising cooperation among the microorganisms. They appear to operate like more than just floating individual cells. They live and die for the greater good, it seems. So they may be, in fact, a gigantic watery superorganism.
Now that's a cool monster for you: You can swim in it and never know you've been in the belly of a beast.
The Hokey Hybrids
Mermaids and mermen have always been the stuff of fantasy. Where did the fantasies come from? There are some standard answers to this question, which have always seemed rather inadequate. For instance ... (next slide, if you please) ...
Credit: Getty Images
The manatee has often been called the source of mermaid myths. It's a mammal, so it breathes air. But who would ever mistake a manatee for a sleek and beautiful mermaid?
Could it be love-starved sailors with poor eyesight? There was no shortage of these fellows in the days before optometrists.
Credit: beats me
Another possibility is that merfolk were inspired by fish with roughly human-looking faces, like this fellow. Some fish can look humanoid. That would be enough to get superstitious sailors started.
The Kraken Strikes
How about giant, ship-destroying squid and octopi? These monsters were old hat even to the easily freaked-out. Most folks figured they were historical exaggerations.
That's until some very large and unusual squids started washing up or being hauled in by marine biologists in recent years. Colossal squid are meters long, pretty amazing beasts. Still, they have never been known to lift ships out of the water.
And since were on the topic of squids ...
Spider + Bat + Squid = Sea Monster
Do you remember when this one hit the headlines? It's not so gigantic, at four meters long, but it was observed 3,380 meters down in the Pacific Ocean near Oahu. It's pretty big to have gone unseen before its May 2001 discovery.
So what else is out there? It's pretty clear marine biologists have only just begun discovering what lives in the deep sea. The more time they spend searching, the more they will find. But none would dispute that the nastiest sea monster to ever rise out of the sea is ... (drum roll please) ...
Deadliest Sea Monster Ever
You might have guessed it: Human garbage. Yep. It's the ugliest, most alien-looking, fatal and pervasive monster in the seas. Garbage patches have been getting a lot of attention lately. These are areas on the seas where currents and winds tend to concentrate floating garbage.
Deep under the waves of a long lost ocean there were whale-sized marine reptiles that, it's theorized, might have been attacked and eaten by a giant kraken. Meanwhile, a newly discovered giant scavenger from the same time may have made its living picking over the leftovers.
The idea of a kraken was originally proposed a couple of years ago at the meeting of the Geological Society of America by Mount Holyoke College paleontologist Mark McMenamin. Now he has returned to the annual meeting with what he believes is more evidence of the kraken, including what could be the tip of its tooth-like beak, another example of a potential kraken murder case, and the earliest-known fossil of a scavenger crustacean that is today among those found devouring whale carcasses in the ocean depths.
The initial evidence for the kraken was very indirect: McMenamin found in 2011 signs that the remains of 14-meter (45-foot) ichthyosaurs at Nevada's Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park were arranged in patterns that resembled the work of a modern-day octopus -- which are known to fiddle and arrange bones as well as attack and kill sharks. He also asserted then, as now, that the Nevada rocks in which the ichthyosaurs were found are incorrectly interpreted as being made from shallow ocean sediments, when they are actually from much much deeper.
The kraken hypothesis was not warmly embraced by his colleagues, and McMenamin was going to let the matter drop until he came across an old issue of a journal in which there were photos of a museum display of the ichthyosaurs skeletons that had been removed from the park.
"It was laid out exactly as found in the field and there were rib cage constrictions," said McMenamin. "It was very strange. I'd never seen anything like it before. It looked like something had pulled bones out of place and placed them to one side."
So McMenamin returned earlier this year to Nevada with students in search of additional evidence. What they found was a small rock that they later realized might be part of a giant cephalopod beak -- a kraken's maw.
"It's the densest thing on the body of a cephalopod," McMenamin said. And so it's the most likely thing to be preserved in the fossil record. "We obtained a beak of a giant Humboldt squid and compared. That actually worked pretty well. We have direct comparison to modern Humboldt squid. They had very similar fractures and converging straia (lines)."
These are just more pieces in the kraken case, which is a tough one, as there are other explanations for the evidence.
"The problem with the kraken argument is it does not take into account all the other ways those vertebrae could have been re-arranged," said Spencer Lucas, paleontologist and curator at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. "For example, the body of the ichthyosaur had to decompose and collapse, and scavenging by various animals could have taken place. These processes could have rearranged vertebrae."
Several experts in the area were also asked to comment, but said they preferred not to. Still even Lucas isn't ruling a kraken out.
"I suppose the kraken argument is a possibility, but one of many, and a highly unusual one. What we need here is a more rigorous analysis that excludes the many alternatives to the kraken idea."
On the other hand, there is that scavenger fossil -- what's called an amphipod -- that was found by one of McMenamin's students. He's giving a second presentation about that find at the same meeting, arguing that it's the earliest known and a supergiant version of today's small crustaceans. That's a much easier case to make, and important to paleontologists, if not as racy as a kraken.
"The amphipod is an important addition to our knowledge of a group with a limited fossil record," said Lucas.