"Living Pterodactyls?"

© 2004-2013, Glen J. Kuban

Part of Kuban's web sites

Pterodactyls are members of group of prehistoric flying reptiles known as pterosaurs. Based on fossil evidence, namely the lack of any known post-Cretaceous pterosaur remains, most scientists believe pterosaurs went extinct with the dinosaurs over 65 million years ago. Nevertheless, some cryptozoologists and young earth creationists have suggested that pterodactyls or other pterosaurs survived into modern times, and may still be alive today. I do not dispute this possibility, but remain skeptical, since the main evidence for living pterosaurs is a handful of reported sightings, rather than actual specimens or even clear photos of the creatures. Generally anecdotal evidence is not considered a sound basis for firm scientific conclusions. However, I for one would be thrilled if a modern pterosaur were apprehended (alive or dead) and made available for scientific examination.

Figure 1. Rhamphorhynchus reconstruction

Most advocates of living pterosaurs are strict creationists or cryptozoologists. Some of the former suggest that the finding of modern pterosaurs would refute the standard geologic timetable and evolution. While finding a living species of pterosaur would be a monumental discovery, it would do nothing to refute mainstream geology. It would merely indicate that a remnant population of an ancient group survived much longer than originally thought -- similar to the situation with the Coelacanth, a type of lobe-finned fish thought long extinct until a modern species was discovered alive in 1938. Indeed, if the discovery of such creatures was a threat to conventional geology, one would expect scientists to be dismayed by them, or even try to cover them up. The opposite is the case: they celebrate them.

Even among creationists and cryptozoologists, only a small portion actively promote the idea of living pterosaurs. The likely reason is that the evidence is even more scant and equivocal than for controversial creatures such as Big Foot or the "Loch Ness Monster." Much of the supposed evidence for living pterosaurs relies on reported "sightings" which typically lack credible photos or other convincing documentation, making their credibility difficult to confirm. Other alleged evidence for modern pterosaurs relies on artifacts or rock etchings of questionable origin or subjective interpretation.

Reported Sightings

A number of alleged eyewitness reports of living pterodactyls are related at the following "paranormal" phenomena About.com website. Even if we assume that most of the witnesses are honest and sincere (a difficult proposition to demonstrate), it is usually difficult to rule out mistaken identifications. A number of large birds, as well as large fruit bats, can present pterosaur-like shapes, especially if seen from a distance or in silhouette.

Another About.com website promotes an alleged pterosaur on an ancient pictograph in Utah (discussed further below), and a bizarre story about a living pterodactyl stumbling out of a freshly broken rock. Although the anonymous About.com author describes the story as a "fascinating tale," it is actually one of the most absurd and easily refuted of "living pterosaur" claims. A more detailed version of the story is recounted by strict creationist Carl Baugh in his book Panorama of Creation. After incorrectly referring to pterodactyls as "flying dinosaurs" he states:

"The record states that in France, some workmen, in the winter of 1856, while working on a railway tunnel between St. Dizey and the Nancy lines, came across a huge boulder of Jurassic Limestone, which precedes the Cretaceous by several million years. After they had broken open the limestone, stumbling out of the tunnel toward them was a creature which fluttered its wings, croaked, and collapsed dead at their feet. This creature had a wingspan of ten feet, seven inches, with four legs joined by a membrane like a bat. What should have been feet were long talons. The mouth was arrayed with sharp teeth. The skin was black, oily, and thick. Local students of paleontology immediately identified this creature as being a pterodactyl. This was all reported in The Illustrated London News, February 9, 1856, page 156. They examined the limestone from which the creature had been released and found a cavity in the exact mold of the creatures body. It this is true, it is absolutely impossible for that creature to have lived more than a few thousand years in any form of hibernation...The worldwide, biblical Noahic flood explains this phenomena far better than the evolutionary process.1

Figure 2. Pterodactyl cast
Figure 2. Pterodactylus kochi (cast)
A short-tailed Jurassic pterosaur,
about the size of a robin
Solnhofen Limestone, Germany

Astute readers will readily recognize the inherent absurdities in this account. While Baugh says the creature could not live inside the rock more than a few thousand years, his own interpretation requires that it be remain buried alive since Noah's Flood--over four thousand years by his own time reckoning.2 How it managed to live and breath without any oxygen (hibernating or not) for a time span orders of magnitude greater than any creature's normal life span, Baugh does not say, or evidently expect us to question. Of course, common sense dictates that the creature could not live inside a sealed rock for thousands of years, or hundreds of years, or even one hour for that matter.3

The TalkOrigins archive website adds some interesting background on the newspaper account:

At the time, there was a great Franco-Prussian rivalry, and the Solnhofen Limestone from Bavaria (from which Archaeopteryx would later be discovered) was producing many fabulous fossils which were loudly trumpeted by German paleontologists. When a tunnel was being built in France through limestone the same age as the Solnhofen Limestone, French "gentlemen geologists" took the opportunity to trumpet a story of their own. In the original report, the pterodactyl crumbled to dust, conveniently leaving no evidence."4

Lest the reader wonder whether Baugh intended the story to be taken seriously, he remarks, "...having so many other anomalies, we certainly do not doubt this account..." Evidently by Baugh's reasoning, but since there are many unexplained things in the world, this fantastic story must be true. Baugh also assures the reader that the story was related in "a verifiable publication," as if its appearance in a newspaper assures its accuracy.

Even if the story didn't entail the preposterous elements noted above, there were clues that it was a hoax from the start. Some of them relate to details omitted from Baugh's version. As noted by cryptozoologist Karl Shuker5, natural history hoaxes were common in English periodicals of the day. This pterodactyl story indicated that a naturalist identified the creature as "Pterodactylus anas" but there is no pterosaur species with that name. Nor would there be, since Pterodactylus is a genus of small (mostly robin-sized) pterosaurs (Figure 2), whereas the creature in the story was reported to have a wingspan of 3.22 meters (about 10 1/2 feet). Moreover, the word "anas" is Latin for duck. The French word for Duck is canard, which means a hoax or invented story.

Vertebrate paleontologists Darren Naish remarked on the Dinosaur List (a web-based paleontology forum) that this pterodactyl-in-a-rock story might have been inspired by stories of toads found alive in rocks. He notes that despite such rumors, only one such specimen has been retrieved, and this was "found" by the same man responsible for the Piltdown hoax. Moreover, there are quite plausible explanations for toads in rocks; namely that the creature either crawled in a small hole or crevase which was not noticed then the rock was broken open, or that eggs or a tadpole might have been laid or fallen in a smaller opening, possibly trapping an adult (which might live for a while from insects passing by). At any rate, there is no evidence that any animals have been found "alive" in a tightly sealed rock, nor any reson to expect they would be.6

Baugh and his former partner Don Patton also have reported sightings of living or recently expired pterodactyls in various parts of the world. Baugh's "Creation Evidence Museum" website states that CEM has sponsored expeditions to Papua New Guinea in 1994 and 1996, and that these excursions resulted in nocturnal, eyewitness sightings of "bioluminescent pterosaurs." Baugh notes that nationals and missionaries in the area describe "flying reptiles with wingspans up to 25' across," which have the habit of "scavenging gravesites for food." Baugh' site gives no names of witnesses or photos of the alleged creatures. A "Creation in the Crossfire" web page by Garth Guessman states that Baugh himself saw one of these pterosaurs through a monocular night scope, and "snapped a photo of a strange print in the sand the next morning." However, neither Baugh nor Guessman's web pages show the photo in question.

Jonathan Whitcomb, an avid advocate of the New Guinea pterosaur claims, does provide some photos, but they are of the witnesses, not the creatures or their tracks. On his website "Pterosaurs Still Living" Whitcomb recounts several local interviews. After retracting some claims from earlier interviews, such as a false report about multiple pterodactyls being seen at once (which he attributes to language and translation difficulties) Whitcomb indicates that the consensus of local testimonies indicates a single, primarily nocturnal rhamphorhynchid pterosaur species with a wing span of 20 to 25 feet, which often uses bioluminescent lights while flying and fishing. Whitcomb describes how he used a knife to draw in the sand, in order to help a witness named Gideon identify the creature. After drawing a pointed head-like shape, Gideon "continued drawing the body and wings." Whitcomb remarks in that the drawing is "not visually accurate as he [Gideon] is not a realistic artist." No offense to Whitcomb, but judging from the crudeness of the portion drawn by himself, neither is he.

Whitcomb's site also displays photos of some museum artworks from the area. One captions asks how these carvings might relate to the creature sightings. However, a likely answer is revealed in another caption, which acknowledges, "The artistic representations do not necessarily closely resemble any pterosaur." Indeed, one could as easily interpret the artwork as composite of several known creatures or mythical/spiritual beings (demons, dragons, etc), so the potential significance to the Ropen creature seems tenuous at best.

Also related on Whitcomb's website is a sighting by strict creationist David Woetzel, who reportedly observed the "Ropen" on Umboi Island in the fall of 2004. The site states, "This may be the best sighting on this island by a westerner in years." If so, it evidently is not saying much, the web site goes on the clarify that all he saw was a light move across the sky for 2 seconds. In personal communication, Woetzel confirmed that he did not see any actual bodily form, just a light.

Woetzel maintains his own website where he briefly describes his 2004 PNG expedition. He relates anecdotal reports of locals, and describes his own sighting (evidently the same one related by Whitcomb) as follows: "a large, yellowish glow approximately 20-25% the size of the full moon was observed to fly behind one of the volcanic peaks. The light left no trail and it twinkled around the edges. The whole sighting lasted for only a few seconds."

Woetzel's website also related that a female missionary pilot experienced a "near miss" with the creature in the mid 1980ís, and that she "took a fascinating picture of the Ropen off the wing of her plane while flying near Mt. Barik." However, no photo has come to light, and there may never have been one. More recently Woetzel related that upon doing more research, he concluded that the pilot was not credible. To his credit, Woetzel has removed the questionable account from his website.

Kent Hovind, another strict creationist with a history of sensational claims, has also suggested that there is compelling evidence of "living pterodactyls." Michael Snoeck, who maintains a pro-Hovind website, archives a number of Hovind's "Creation Seminar's" where claims of living pterosaur were made. As recorded by Snoeck, in one of the seminars, Hovind related that in Kenya, Africa, local natives knew of a living pterosaur named Kongamato. Records of Hovind's seminars also noted that a Kenyan change student at Louisiana State University named "Romandi" stated that there were living pterosaurs in "his village back home." They are only about a four feet wing span." However, the name of the village was not given, nor any photos or other corroboration of the student's report. Hovind was reportedly contacted by an African explorer named Melland, who heard repeated reports about a creature by the same name (Kongamato) that inhabits the swamps of the Belgian Congo. Natives were said to have described it as not quite bird-like, but "more like a lizard with wings of skin like a batís." Hovind states that the natives identified pictures of pterodactyls as the same creature, and ends by remarking "Folks, have we been lied to about dinosaurs being dead for millions of years?

Flying Fox 2 Flying Fox bat in Flight
Figure 3. "Flying Foxes" (large fruit bats) in flight

It's likely that at least some southern hemisphere sightings of "pterosaurs" are explained by fruit bats. Some fruit bats such as "flying foxes" (shown at left) grow quite large (with wing spans over 4 feet across), and if seen in silhouette (which would be the case at night) can present a pterosaur-like profile, especially to nonscientific observers. Of course, no bats are known to be bioluminescent, or to have long tails or wing spans of 25 feet. However, the biolumiescenet feature seems tenable, since only a few sightings even claim to include an actual pterosaur form with the lights. And no mammals (modern or ancient) are known to possess bioluminescence. Nor, as far as I know, have the living-pterosaur adocates proposed a plausible mechanism to explain it. A superficial coating caused by luminescent algae picked up from the water seems unlikely; the pterosaur proponents themselves suggest the lights only last a few seconds and are under the pterosaur's control. As far as the size of the beast goes, this would be difficult to judge from a distance, especially in the air. Furthermore, the larger the creature, the more difficult it is to explain why they are not seen more often and regularly photographed. Even at night a 25 ft long pterosaur would be hard to miss and present a distinctive silouette). As far as the reportedly long tail goes, this would be a significant feature, if we could trust the accuracy of sightings that report them. However, this is the crux of the matter. Whitcomb, Baugh, and others insist that the PNG locals are well aware of fruit bats and would have no trouble distinguishing them from pterosaurs. Whether or not that is so, without physical remains or at least credible photos, its difficult to put much confidence in anecdotal reports.

Pterosaur hoax
Figure 4. Civil War "pterosaur"
(widely acknowledged as a hoax)

Alleged Physical and Photographic Evidence

A handful of photographs have been presented as evidence for modern pterodactyls, but are strongly questioned by most workers. Most of the photos have been demonstrated to be misidentifications or hoaxes. For example, several dubious or refuted photos are shown at an About.com website entitled "Did Pterosaurs Survive Extinction?", including the alleged pterosaur stumbling out of a broken rock, which they relate as a credible tale, and call "fascination." Another case they recount features a giant pterodactyl supposedly shot by two ranchers in the mid to late 1800's in Arizona and (as the story goes) subsequently photographs with a squad of union soldiers. Alas, the photo has since been exposed as a hoax--a promotional stunt for a Fox television series.7

Another example is a supposed "pterodactyl skull" was shown in several photographs on Pterodactyl Society website. The captions described the specimen as a "pterodactyl skull" from Africa. However, no details were provided as to precisely where, when, or by whom it was found, or who identified it. As it turns out, the specimen is not a skull at all. According to skeletal experts Joe Williams and Jay Villemarette of the World of Nature Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma, the specimen is an ostrich pelvis. To his credit, the webmaster, who goes "Harry O." took down the photo page in question after being notified of the mistaken identification. Of course, it would have been better if Harry had researched the identity of the skull before displaying the photos.

Alleged Artifacts and Pottery Depictions

Alleged UT ptero pictograph The About.com site mentioned earlier discusses a pictograph from Thompson, Utah, suggesting that the "beak, head prominence, wings, and legs look very much like a pterosaur." However, this seems to be a case of special pleading at best. The "beak" on the pictograph is relatively small and simple, appearing at least as bird-like as pterosaur-like. The head crest seems moot, as any number of birds have them. The wings are appear "wavy" and highly stylized, and thus don't particularly match a bird or pterosaur. The legs are simply drawn, without showing individual toes. In short, there is nothing about the image to suggest a pterosaur over a bird.

Carl Baugh, Don Patton, and Dennis Swift6b have claimed that pterosaurs and dinosaurs are depicted in ancient figurines from Acambaro, Mexico and on ancient pottery found near Ica, Peru. Some of the Ica images even appear to show humans riding on the backs of dinosaurs or giant pterosaurs. Both sets of artifacts "Ica Stones" are controversial in terms of their age and origin. In an article of the North Texas Skeptics newsletter, John Blanton writes:

"Dating both the Acambaro figurines and Ica stones has proved inconclusive. Unfortunately, both the stones and figurines have been removed from their original settings, making reliable dating difficult, if not impossible. In the Peruvian case, the curator and discoverer of the artifacts, Javier Cabrera, a medical doctor, refuses to reveal the location of a cave where he allegedly found the stones, leading archeologist Neil Steede, who investigates both cases on Cote's Jurassic Art, to question the doctor's story. So, we come to the end of the tale, and we still don't know what's behind the Acambaro dinosaurs."8
In an article by Robert Todd Carroll we find additional reasons to question the Ica stones:
The Ica stone craze began in 1996 with Dr. Javier Cabrera Darquea, a Peruvian physician who allegedly abandoned a career in medicine in Lima to open up the Museo de Piedras Grabadas (Engraved Stones Museum) in Ica. There he displays his collection of several thousand stones. Dr. Cabrera claims that a farmer found the stones in a cave. The farmer was arrested for selling the stones to tourists. He told the police that he didn't really find them in a cave, but that he made them himself. Other modern Ica artists, however, continue to carve stones and sell forgeries of the farmer's forgeries. In 1975, Basilio Uchuya and Irma Gutierrez de Aparcana claimed that they sold Cabrera stones they'd carved themselves and that they'd chosen their subject matter by copying from "comic books, school books, and magazines" (Polidoro 2002).

A Skeptic Wiki article, points out some other inconsistencies regarding the Ica Stones. One is the question of why a some of the stones supposedly show images of surgery, telescopes, powered flight, and other sophisticated technologies, and yet no such artifacts exist outside the Ica Stones themselves. Another is that it is difficult to explain how an advanved civilization had no other means of recording such activities or communicating in general than scrawling rough images on rocks.

Still further evidence that these artifacts are questionable and in at least some cases outright hoaxes is discussed by Massimo Polidoro in the Sept/Oct 2002 issue of Skeptical Inquirer , in David Matthews' Weekly Column #56, and in a website article by Stephen Meyers of the Istitute for Biblical and Scientific Studies.

Thus, unless the proponents of the Ica Stones and Acambaro figurines provide better evidence of their authenticity, they seem dubious at best. Indeed, even most creationist and crypotzoological leaders have refrained from endorsing such artifacts as credible evidence that humans coexisted with dinosaurs or pterosaurs.

Alleged Biblical Evidence

Baugh and others have claimed that the Bible supports the idea of recent pterodactyls. Among the more commonly quoted Bible versus are Isa. 14:29 and Isa. 30:6. These passages speak of a fiery serpent and fiery flying serpent respectively. First, there are legitimate exegetical questions about whether these verses are meant to be taken literally. Other Biblical scholars believe they may present symbolic imagery. Second, even if literal, they seem more evocative of fire breathing dragons than pterosaurs.

Seal with alleged flying serpent
Figure 5. Seal with alleged "flying
serpent" showing bird-like wings.

Isreal Seals
Figure 6. Seals from Israel imagined by
John Goertzen to show pterosaurs attacking an ibex

Creationist John Goertzen has a website advocating the idea of living and recent pterosaurs, suggesting that the Bible and other ancient writings refer to such creatures. He also maintains that Egyptian artifacts and seals depict them. However, all of the literature passages cited seem to require very speculative interpretations to support a pterosaur reference. For example, Goertzeb states: "The spiritual and symbolic knowledge of pterosaurs is found primarily from the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself when speaking with Nicodemus (Jn. 3:14)." However, John 3:14 simply refers to Moses lifting up a "serpent" which most scholars assume is a snake, not a pterosaur. Likewise, although Goertzen declares that the scientific basis for recent pterosaurs is "established by unmistakable artifacts that depict morphological details," none of the artifacts he shows depict clear pterosaur images. In fact, some seem to show feathered wings (Fig. 5), strongly indicating birds, not pterosaurs. Indeed, the lack of clear pterosaur images in Egyptian art would seem to be a strong argument against his case. Many animals are depicted with significant detail in various Egyptian artworks--in some cases allowing individual species to be identified--but none show clear pterosaurs.

Conclusions

To date there is no reliable evidence of living or recently living pterosaurs. If living pterosaurs were someday confirmed, it would be a wonderful scientific discovery, but do nothing to undermine mainstream geology.

References and Notes

1. Baugh, Carl E. 1989. Panorama of Creation. Hearthstone Publishing, Ltd., Div. of Southwest Radio Church, Oklahoma, OK. pp. 19-20. Other sources indicate that the pterodactyl article was on p. 166 rather than 156 of the Feb. 9, 1856 Illustrated London Times, though I have not been able to obtain a copy of the actual article. Another account of the article is found on the website "Crystal Clear Creation" Recently they added a link to "Another Side of the Story" where they state that they believe the story is a hoax. This author for one considers it odd that they don't simply state this in the main article, rather than using a link, which many readers may not access.

2. On Baugh's web site at www.creationevidence.org at article by his "staff writer" David Bassett states that the great Flood of Genesis took place "definitely 4,300-4,400 years ago".

3. Another interesting quirk of the story: try to figure out where the workmen were when they broke open the rock--inside the tunnel or outside? The story seems to have it both ways. I happened to be listening to a broadcast of the Southwest Bible Church (the organization who published Baugh's book Panorama of Creation), when Baugh retold the same bizarre story. The host, evidently wondering if Baugh was serious, and perhaps wanting to give him an opportunity to soften the claim, asked Baugh whether he was actually suggesting that the creature had remained alive in the rock since Noah's Flood. After pausing for a few seconds, Baugh replied, "Well, perhaps not alive as we know it, but chemically alive." At that unfathomable answer, the host moved on. Had he wanted to prolong the inquiry, he could have asked Baugh why, if there were anything to the account, the creature's remains were not studied, preserved, and described in scientific publications--as would be the case even if it were a highly embellished version of a pterodactyl skeleton discovery, let alone one that only recently "croaked."

4. Article CB930.4 at Talk Origins archive: http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CB/CB930_4.html

5. Shuker, Karl P.N., 1997, From Flying Toads to Snakes with Wings, Llewellyn Publishing, St. Paul, Minnesota.

6. Naish, Darren, Dinosaur List forum, http://dml.cmnh.org/1995Nov/msg00759.html , Nov. 13, 1995, post

7. Massimo, Polidoro, May 2002. Skeptical Inquirer, "A Pterodactyl in the Civil War - Notes on a Strange World."

8. Meyers, Stephen C. 2005. "Dr.Dennis Swift - Inca Stones". IBSS website article at: http://www.bibleandscience.com/otherviews/swift.htm

9. Blanton, John, Newsletter of North Texas Skeptics, October 1999.

Creation in the Crossfire website, http://www.creationinthecrossfire.com/Articles/pterosaurs.htm


Paluxy website Page hits:
Revised 12-5-2010. Added Figure numbers and John G. illustrations.
Revised:10-18-2006. Added link to Stephen Meyers article on inca stones
12-03-2005, GJK (Expanded references)