The Science (and Trivia) of Sea Monsters

In days of yore, the seas between Norway and Iceland were treacherous. Vikings who would attempt to travel from one to the other were said to be attacked by a giant sea monster that could rally storms to its advantage and then, with its long, slimy tentacles would pull ships of marauding Scandinavians down to the depths where they would meet an untold and horrific doom. While rumored to leave none alive, the occasional seafarer was fortunate enough to make it back to land to spread stories of this creature of the deep. This monster they dubbed the Kraken, from the shared German word krake, meaning “octopus.”

As the world moved on and scientific knowledge began to probe every end of the earth, we decided that the Kraken was a creature of fantasy, a myth for which the world no longer had room. But far from removing the fantastic from the world around us, further understanding of our world may make us realize that in fact the beasts that really exists are every bit as eerie, terrifying, and incredible as were the mythical monsters of ages past.

In 2005 a Japanese zoologist Tsunemi Kubodera (sure to be an expert at our Biology trivia) was able to capture pictures of the Architeuthis dux, or giant squid for the first time in history in the sea south of Japan. By dangling a line with bait resembling fish from the boat they were able to lure in the behemoth, and make a striking new observation: Architeuthis is far more aggressive than previously believed. Initially, researchers theorized that giant squids behaved more like jellyfish when searching for food: letting their tentacles loll about as they swim until they find a fish, at which point they draw their prey in gently, their victim realizing what’s going on after it’s too late to get away. Turns out it’s just the opposite: once prey was spotted, the squid moved in and attacked laterally, putting it in a sort of stranglehold, enveloping it within its tentacles. Truly, the attack style of this giant squid was more akin to that of a python than a jellyfish. After getting one of its tentacles caught in the line, the squid eventually left, leaving a 5.5 meter (or just over 18 foot) tentacle behind. Estimating the size of the body from tentacle, this squid was likely about 8 meters (or 26 feet) long. That’s some cephalopod anatomy trivia you can impress your friends (and enemies) with.

Architeuthis can actually grow to lengths as dramatic as 18.3 meters (or 60 feet). To help us at Sporcle put that in perspective, we measured that against the size of our office in Seattle. Starting in the back of the office, we had to keep measuring until we had actually left the building and reached the street outside to measure the Architeuthis’ full potential length. After this endeavor, one of our employees resolved she was never going swimming in the ocean  again. This may not be a bad plan, as there have been evidences found for their existence off the coast of North America and through much of the Pacific Ocean, as well as in the North Atlantic (where the Viking supposedly met their Kraken). Considering the incredible size of these squid, the fact they may be more aggressive than previously believed, and that they continue to lurk in the same oceans as they legendary Kraken,  it doesn’t seem like a stretch to imagine that the Kraken was just one particularly aggressive squid. And if that’s the case, one has to wonder if there may someday be another squid with a similar personality disorder intent on destroying passing ships…

Other theories, though, have been proposed which could also shed light on the mystery of the Kraken. Long before humans came to inhabit the Earth there were gargantuan air-breathing sea dwellers called ichthyosaurs. At Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in Nevada there are a number of very well preserved ichthyosaur remains from the time when Nevada was still mostly covered in water. Theoretically, these ichthyosaurs had died from accidentally being stranded in a toxic environment due to a “plankton bloom.” That they had died in relatively shallow water would be necessary for their remains to be discovered in such a neatly arranged manner. However, recent digs around the site have made it look less and less likely that they did die in shallow water. Similarly inconsistent with the plankton bloom theory, many of them are found to have twisted necks and broken ribs, which would imply they were killed by a much, much larger predator.

What predator could possibly be large enough to suffocate an ichthyosaur while dragging it ever more deeply into the sea? Furthermore, what would cause their remains to be arranged in such a way that it would be recognizable and intact after its demise? There is one animal that we know of in the modern world that does both of these things (albeit not with ichthyosaurs): the octopus. Paleontologist Mark McMenamin  believes that a gigantic octopus could be the solution to this puzzle. Aggressive enough and intelligent enough to take down creatures like sharks through suffocation and strangulation, and frankly strange enough to feel the need to arrange the bones of its victims, the octopus would not be a far fetched candidate. As McMenamin puts it, this would be the “perfect Triassic crime.” Because the remains of invertebrates don’t endure through time as well as the bones of vertebrates, unless we were to find the beak of this creature we may never know it had existed.

We may never find further evidence of the Kraken. We may never be bothered by giant squid, and an enormous and ancient octopus does seem like something out of an H.P. Lovecraft novel. But one never knows. Perhaps someday when the tide goes out we’ll catch a glimpse of the petrified remains of some Viking boatmen, neatly arranged.