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Throwing (Fossilized) Bones

On Pharyngula, PZ Myers tries to imagine an ancient squid, preying on reptilian whales and arranging their vertebrae as a testament to its glory. He writes “I love the idea of ancient giant cephalopods creating art and us finding the works now. But then, reality sinks in: that’s a genuinely, flamboyantly extravagant claim, and the evidence better be really, really solid. And it’s not.” The claim comes from a fossil site in Nevada, where a cluster of ichthyosaur remains have long been thought to come from “an accidental stranding or from a toxic plankton bloom.” But paleontologist Mark McMenamin thinks the ichthyosaurs may have perished in deep water, which would require a different explanation for the arrangement of their bones. PZ continues, “this fossil bed is being over-interpreted as a trace fossil, with the bones arranged by intent, by an intelligent cephalopod, which they have not seen. Furthermore, a line of discs is being seen as a picture of a cephalopod tentacle, classic pareidolia.” Still, we can appreciate an imaginative hypothesis. And on Life Lines, Dr. Dolittle shows us just how resourceful modern cephalopods can be—opening jars, protecting themselves with coconut shells, and hunting sharks. Observing real animal behavior, it’s only a short leap to mythology.

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