The period this proposed creature would have populated has long fascinated scientists. Known as the Triassic Period, it lasted roughly 50 million years. It began at the end of the planet's largest mass extinction some 251 million years ago. Researchers estimate that some 96 percent of all marine species and 70 percent of land-based creatures vanished. It ended in another mass extinction, one that would lead to the rise of the dinosarus.
The Triassic "is a time when modern ecosystems come into being," says Hans-Dieter Sues, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. "Almost every group that today is dominant in the world's oceans or on land had either its first appearance in the Triassic or some of its closest relatives first showed up."
One of the period's iconic creatures: large sharp-toothed fish known as ichthyosaurs. One member in particular, Shonisaurus popularis, grew to lengths of up to 50 feet. Nevada's Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park boasts nine fossils of these giants, all bunched in the same general location.
Random fossil pile or kraken lair?
At issue is whether the assembly represents animals who died in a shallow ocean from a mass stranding or an explosive algae bloom, or whether the formation was in the deep sea. Some recent geological analysis has suggested the deep-sea location – the modern-day battleground for sperm whales and their prey, giant squid.
Enter McMenamin and the kraken. A unique pattern of vertebra caught his attention – two rows, neatly set side by side in a manner that make them look nested. Moreover, the bones were scarred in ways that indicated the animals died at different times.