One last thing before Tet Zoo closes down for Christmas but, don’t worry, this isn’t anything I’ve knocked up specially… due to an unfortunate series of misunderstandings it’s something I produced ‘by mistake’ and have since decided to recycle. Hey, why not. Ironically, I post it just when I’m in the middle of two other pterosaury bits of work (more on those soon). So I never did get to finish the anuran series before Christmas, nor post about that big, personally-relevant publication which has just appeared, nor get through the titan-hawks, monster pigeons and whatnot. And what about all those discoveries reported in the press that have been oh so relevant to Tet Zoo: the new large woolly rat (Mallomys) from New Guinea (here), the rediscovery of the La Palma gallotia lizard Gallotia auaritae, Steve Brusatte and Paul Sereno’s new carcharodontosaurid species, and that news on giraffe taxonomy. On that last thing: well, finally. I’ve been doing my best to remind people that I’ve been talking about this research since early 2006. And let’s just say that I have giraffes on my mind a lot right now – any of you that saw December’s issue of BBC Focus magazine might know why.
Anyway: why are we here? MODERN DAY PTEROSAURS, that’s why. Yes, while a great many (most?) of you that visit Tet Zoo are highly familiar with the contents of the cryptozoological literature, those of you that aren’t might be surprised to learn that unusual winged animals reported from all around the world have been considered by some to possibly be pterosaurs that not only survived beyond the end of the Cretaceous, they also made it all the way to the present. Here, hopefully, is everything you want to know about modern day pterosaurs, but were afraid to ask. Thanks to Mark Witton and Richard Hing for comments on an earlier version of this text, and to Dave Hone for leading me down this path in the first place…
The fossil record convincingly demonstrates that pterosaurs became extinct at the end of the Maastrichtian in the Late Cretaceous (65 million years ago). However, sightings of unusual winged animals around the world have led some people to suggest that pterosaurs might have survived to the present. How realistic are these claims, and can they be taken seriously?
A quick history of modern pterosaurs
Perhaps the earliest ‘living pterosaur’ account dates to 1856 when, according to the Illustrated London News, a live pterodactyl with a 3 m wingspan emerged alive from within a rock dislodged during the construction of a French railway tunnel. The emergence of live animals from ‘within solid rock’ was not an unfamiliar idea at the time, as various Victorian reports described the discovery of frogs, toads and other animals within rocks or stones. This story is clearly a hoax: the pterosaur allegedly represented a new species dubbed Pterodactylus anas. Anas means duck; in France (where the pterosaur was allegedly found), a duck is called a canard. Canard is another word for hoax.
A great many 19th and 20th century accounts of flying, dragon-type creatures from eastern Africa and elsewhere were collected and published by Bernard Heuvelmans in his 1978 book Les Derniers Dragons d’Afrique (the pterosaur section of the book was translated into English and published as a series of magazine articles (Heuvelmans 1996a, b)). Heuvelmans (1916-2001), a Belgian zoologist, is best known for essentially pioneering the branch of zoology known as cryptozoology (I previously wrote a bit about him here). More than any other writer, he was responsible for documenting accounts of the kongamato, a winged quasi-reptilian animal best known from Zambia and Zimbabwe and said to attack people and to capsize canoes (kongamato is reported to mean ‘boat breaker’). Other accounts describing ‘living pterosaurs’ come from Madagascar, Namibia, New Zealand, Crete, Brazil, Argentina, Vietnam and Texas (Heuvelmans 1978, 1995, Michell & Rickard 1982, Eberhart 2002, Newton 2005). In fact Texas in particular has proved a ‘hotspot’ for ‘living pterosaurs’: a flurry of sightings in the late 1970s (suspiciously close in time to the discovery of the Texan azhdarchid pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus) described bat-winged featherless creatures, usually sporting red eyes (Bord & Bord 1981, Newton 2005) [the adjacent picture, showing kongamatos attacking people, is by cryptozoological artist William Rebsamen].
Sanderson and the olitiau
Among the best known of ‘living pterosaur’ accounts is Ivan T. Sanderson’s 1932 encounter with a black flying creature during the Percy Sladen expedition to west Africa. Sanderson (1911-1973) was an experienced naturalist who later published many books on exotic wildlife and its study and capture, but he is perhaps best known today for his interest in mystery animals and the paranormal. While crossing a river in the Assumbo Mountains in Cameroon, Sanderson and his colleague Gerald Russell had to duck into the water to avoid an apparently aggressive animal with membranous wings that twice flew directly at them, chattering its teeth (Heuvelmans 1978, 1995, Shuker 1994, 1995, 2003). To the local people, this creature was the olitiau. Sanderson was unhappy with the fact that some writers later interpreted his creature as a possible pterosaur, and in fact his opinion was that it was a large (and scientifically unknown) bat. Given that Sanderson and Russell both estimated the animal’s wingspan to be 4 m, it would be a pretty interesting bat to say the least.
Ropen and duah
Rather than being restricted to the 1930s and earlier, sightings of ‘living pterosaurs’ have continued to the present, with accounts from California and Wyoming continuing through the 1980s and 90s. In Africa, it has been reported that people in parts of Kenya were familiar with the kongamato as recently as 1998. However, in recent years these accounts have very much been overshadowed by an alleged ‘living pterosaur’ from Papua New Guinea: the ropen. This nocturnal creature is reported to have a 5-7 m wingspan, a long, crested, Pteranodon-like head, an elongate neck, and to be bioluminescent. It is further reported to frequent caves and to feed on rotten human flesh.
While accounts from the 1940s are supposed to describe the ropen, it only became well known after 1999, although British cryptozoologist Karl Shuker was able to track down a sighting from 1994 as well as third-hand accounts from the 1970s (Shuker 2002). Shuker also showed that the giant bioluminescent creature is not termed the ropen, but is in fact the duah. With a wingspan of 1 m or so, the true ropen is far smaller. It differs from the duah in being restricted to the islands around New Guinea, and in having a long tail with a diamond-shaped vane at its tip. It’s the latter feature that has led to it being widely likened to the Jurassic pterosaur Rhamphorhynchus (Shuker 2002, 2003).
Evaluating ‘living pterosaurs’
At present there is no good reason to think that any of the accounts of ‘living pterosaurs’ are at all relevant to the study of the real pterosaurs known from the Mesozoic fossil record. Besides the fact that there are no indications from the fossil record that pterosaurs survived beyond the end of the Cretaceous, there is nothing compelling or convincing about any of the accounts.
— Firstly, at least some reports of alleged modern-day pterosaurs are known hoaxes. Several photos purporting to show pterosaurs shot in the USA during the Civil War or earlier feature models [like the adjacent pic] or are modified versions of reconstructions from the popular literature. Notably, much of the propaganda surrounding the ropen (for example) comes from ‘young earth creationists’ who seem to think that ‘living pterosaurs’ provide support for their views (see hilarious image below, borrowed from a creationist site. Hey, Eve looks pretty hot). There is little indication that these researchers are intellectually honest when it comes to the ‘living pterosaur’ sightings they report.
— Secondly, most accounts are tremendously vague and do not report any of the details we would need to be confident that we are dealing with real animals. The American ‘living pterosaur’ sightings, for example, generally refer only to large winged creatures, and are often contradictory, variously describing the creatures as having bat-like, ape-like or beaked faces.
— Finally, the more detailed accounts that have been interpreted by some as representing ‘living pterosaurs’ don’t really bear much resemblance to pterosaurs as we know them (for accurately reconstructed pterosaurs, see Mark Witton’s Quetzalcoatlus pair shown below. From Mark’s collection of pterosaur restorations). ‘Living pterosaurs’ are sometimes described as having long, heavy tails and teeth (note that the pterosaurs from the latest Cretaceous were toothless). They are bat-winged, dark in colour, have a body covered in naked or scaly skin, and are flesh-eating, nocturnal, cave-dwelling horrors. These creatures sound more like imaginary generic winged monsters than the pterosaurs we know as fossils; they also recall the outdated reconstructions that are relatively familiar to the public due to their appearance in films and old books. Some alleged ‘living pterosaurs’ – like the duah – are improbable dragon-like composites which, again, don’t resemble any pterosaurs we know of. Hypothetically, had pterosaurs really survived beyond the Cretaceous, it is possible that they might well have evolved to be quite different from their ancestors but, in the absence of evidence for this, other conclusions are more sensible. What are these ‘other conclusions’?
At least some ‘living pterosaur’ accounts probably do report sightings of real animals, and it is most likely that the more sketchy reports describe encounters with large birds including eagles, storks, the shoebill stork, cranes, frigate birds and hornbills. At least some of the American sightings can be explained away in this manner, and in some cases the witnesses displayed an appalling lack of expertise in animal identification: Loren Coleman interviewed a witness in Mexico who, on being shown a drawing of a pterosaur, identified it without hesitation as depicting an eagle. An Argentinean ‘pterosaur’ shot near Lago Nahuel Huapi during the 1800s was later identified as a steamer duck (Heuvelmans 1978, 1996b). It is also just about possible that some reports from the tropics might describe encounters with large bats, though whether they are anything like Sanderson’s remarkable creature from Cameroon remains to be seen.
Also likely is that many of the accounts of winged nocturnal monsters do not have any basis in zoological reality, but merely reflect folk stories about scary winged things. Cultures all around the world possess their own legends or traditions about amorphous winged creatures, and it is notable that such creatures tend to combine an indecipherable collection of bird-like and bat-like traits. Why such accounts are so pervasive among cultures is an interesting question, but there is no reason to think that it has anything to do with pterosaurs.
Finally, is it possible that people have been inspired to imagine ‘living pterosaurs’ after seeing genuine pterosaur fossils? A problem here is that only small pterosaurs tend to be preserved as articulated skeletons. Furthermore, a person unfamiliar with pterosaurs would likely only be able to imagine one as a live animal if it had its wing membranes preserved, and this is comparatively very rare (and not associated with any of the places that have generated ‘living pterosaur’ accounts). It doesn’t look likely, then, that pterosaur fossils are anything to do with ‘living pterosaur’ accounts. In 1928, Swedish palaeontologist Carl Wiman (1867-1944) suggested that African stories about the kongamato might have originated from the palaeontological digs at Tendaguru where, he suggested, local African labourers were shown reconstructions of pterosaurs (Wiman 1928). This is possible, but in fact the African workers who studied the palaeontological literature taken to Tendaguru were hardly naïve enough to think that they were looking at still-living animals (Maier 2003), and are unlikely to have spread misconceptions about the creatures they looked at in the textbooks.
In conclusion, while at least some ‘living pterosaur’ accounts probably do record encounters with real, living animals, it seems to be misinterpretation and wishful thinking which has resulted in the myth of the post-Cretaceous pterosaur.
Well, that’s it. Have a good Christmas – I’ll be back here before New Year’s Eve, so see you then. And keep an eye also on SV-POW!
Refs – –
Bord, J. & Bord, C. 1981. Alien Animals. Book Club Associates, London.
Eberhart, G. M. 2002. Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology (two volumes). ABC Clio, Santa Barbara.
Heuvelmans, B. 1978. Les Derniers Dragons d’Afrique. Plon, Paris.
– . 1995. On the Track of Unknown Animals. Kegan Paul International, London.
– . 1996a. Lingering pterodactyls. Strange Magazine 6, 8-11, 58-60.
– . 1996b. Lingering pterodactyls, Part 2. Strange Magazine 17, 18-21, 56-57.
Maier, G. 2003. African Dinosaurs Unearthed: the Tendaguru Expeditions. Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis.
Michell, J. & Rickard, R. J. M. 1982. Living Wonders: Mysteries and Curiosities of the Animal World. Thames and Hudson, London.
Newton, M. 2005. Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology. McFarland & Company, Jefferson (N. Carolina) and London.
Shuker, K. P. N. 1994. A belfry of crypto-bats. Fortean Studies 1, 235-245.
– . 1995. In Search of Prehistoric Survivors. Blandford, London.
– . 2002. Flying grave robbers. Fortean Times 154, 48-49.
– . 2003. The Beasts That Hide From Man. Paraview Press, New York.
Wiman, C. 1928. Ein Gerücht von einem lebenden Flugsaurier. Natur und Museum 58,431-432.