Quetzalquatlus image via Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quetzalcoatlus
The past week’s tragic event at the Disney World lagoon had me thinking of the witness in American Monsters who told of being stalked by a bipedal, throwback-looking alligator over a couple of years.
As it happened, he sent me an email message not about these ancient reptiles but about the flying creatures generally termed Pterosaurs that seem to be reported more and more often around the US in modern times, especially in Texas and Pennsylvania. As a student in the fields of paleontology and zoology, he noticed some major differences in the way these creatures are usually described by witnesses, and the actual characteristics scientists scientists now ascribe to some of them–fuzzy skin filaments, odd beaks, bright colors, etc.–as research has progressed over time. I asked his permission to post this as a guest blog and he agreed.
Please note, as he states below, that he’s not trying to contradict what any witnesses have reported. After all, he has seen something quite unusual, himself! He’s just intrigued by the fact that Jurassic-era flyers were probably quite distinct from the leathery, pointy-winged creatures reported today. I think it’s a question worth pondering. Here it is in almost its entirety:
Hello Linda, it’s me again and thankfully despite all the mayhem going on here in central Florida; another hostile encounter with any part-time bipedal reptiles hasn’t been on the list. I’m aware it’s still there as ever so often I’ll still hear sounds off in the river system or come across areas where all the animal life is gone (including me soon after realizing it).
I was rereading your books, great work by the way, and one of the things that struck me across them and other cryptozoological archives I ended up digging through trying to find if anyone had seen anything similar to the “Gator Man” was these Pterosaur reports. Pterosaurs are something of my forte in paleontology, enough I was actually planning on writing my doctoral thesis on the group should the opportunity arise in the years to come. However as I was reading many of these sightings of large, very unbird-like flying creatures is that many of them doesn’t actually match the science we know behind the animals. There are exceptions, but the majority does leave me raising an eyebrow.
Now science has gotten things wrong about Pterosaurs since we knew of the group. If you want an idea of how outlandish it was in the first years, in the 1784 when the first species was described by Cosimo Alessandro Collini, he thought he was looking at some sort of giant, reptilian penguin and that the wings were giant paddles that linked the wrist and ankles. It wasn’t until the 1830s that the swimming interpretation was finally overridden by correctly classifying them as winged, flying reptiles. However as more and more species were classified and more and more very good fossils, including numerous impressions showing us both the epidermis and wing shape, we’ve gotten a lot better at distinguishing what was what.
(Drawing of pterosaurs by English naturalist William Buckland (1784-1856) in 1831. Buckland imagined pterosaurs hanging on cliffs.1831 (public domain)Wellnhofer, P.; 2009: A short history of pterosaur research, Zitteliana 29, pp 7-19) — Wikimedia Commons notes this as an inaccurate image due to the wing structure depicted)
The thing that makes me skeptical of many of these Pterosaur reports being exactly what they are said to be is that many of them match the pop culture representation of the group. You’re typical pop culture Pterosaur is something of an amalgamation of various Pterosaur species and birds.
-Long pointed, straight beak and backwards crest of Pteranodon longiceps
-Rhamphorhynchus muensteri styled teeth and long, arrowhead tipped tail
-Walk in a bipedal manner like birds
-Are devoid of any filament epidermis and are either scaly or just blank skin
-Use their feet for grasping
-Are either quite tall standing up, man sized, or size of a coyote
-Have pointy wingtips
The problem is there isn’t a single species of the entire Order that fits more than one of those indicators. Since Pteranodonis the genus most people are familiar with (Pterodactyl[us] was a sea gull sized individual species, not the name of the group; just to clarify), I’ll do a quick comparison.
-An upwards curving beak with variable crests. Only the males of one of the two species have the “spike back” crest pop culture uses, the males of the other species had a fan shape. The females of both species had barely any, or no crest at all. It was also completely toothless, the name “Pteranodon” literally means “Wings without Teeth”.
-An incredibly short tail
-A covering of fur-like pycnofibers on the chest, back, neck, and face.
-Round tips to the wings (all large Pterosaurs did)
-Grasped with the mouth like a pelican or heron. Their feet were built for walking like some larger birds and couldn’t articulate like a bird of prey’s can.
-Strictly quadrupedal aside from very brief instances. Their hips weren’t built properly to walk upright. One of the whole reasons Pterosaurs got bigger than birds if they used both their arms and legs to vault themselves off the ground, thus giving them a bigger starting lift.
-Actually pretty short, both due to posture and short legs. A very large male Pteranodon of either of the two species would barely come up to the average man’s hips if it held a natural posture. And the females were significantly smaller.
Now there were other Pterosaurs that match up a bit better with some reports. Ludodactylus sibbicki closely resembled a smaller Pteranodon with both a crest and teeth, but had a very stout snout that looked more like a Gharial crocodilian’s snout or a gar fish’s head than a beak. Other species like the enormous Quetzalcoatlus northropi were far larger thanPteranodon and with their arms being much longer than their legs, could be mistaken for being bipeds if standing up straight and one didn’t get a good look at the limbs. But the problem with Quetz is it is almost ludicrously tall, taller than a giraffe, has almost no crest (and the one is does have doesn’t point backwards), and has a enormous head and toothless beak.
To my knowledge, there are no large Pterosaurs known with long tails. Long tails were a trait of early members of the group and were practically unheard of by the time of the Cretaceous. Plainly put, the image I see in a lot of Pterosaur sightings closely matches a creature of pop culture, a mixture of Pterosaur species along with modern birds and fantasy dragons, which seems to have never existed. In fact the two things I saw pop up the most, point wings and scaly bodies, are about as unheard of in the group as they are in mammals. In life, Pterosaurs would have looked like some kind of bizarre fusion of a bat and a bird.
This isn’t me calling these eye witnesses liars. I’ve seen inexplicable stuff myself and I doubt I’d have the right to call foul on these people. They’re seeing something alright for there to be so many. I just wanted to know two things from you as a researcher.
1. Have any of them speculated about anything else what they saw might have been? Giant bat? Odd looking bird? Something mythological?
2. Have any of the people who’ve come to you about these reports described anything that seems to match the more accurate representation of what these animals looked like? Something akin to what I’ve described in looks or behavior?
If you want to know a sort of inside joke among some in paleontology, we often refer to inaccurate pop culture representations and cryptozoology reports of Pterosaurs as “Terror-Sores”. Both from them being unrealistically monstrous and how much of a sore headache they give any expert who looks at the darn things!
Two notes I will make real quick though.
1. There is one species of Pterosaur that somewhat resembles your pop culture image. Harpactognathus gentryii, a large Jurassic Pterosaur from the USA that did have a reasonably large wingspan (roughly 4 meters at max), a long tail, and a short crest. The problem with this creature being the species reported is it’s from the Jurassic and represents a lineage of Pterosaurs that largely died out by the Cretaceous period. We have thousands of fossils of Pterosaurs from the later period and not one of them looks anything like Harpactognathus. By the Cretaceous, the primary type of Pterosaur was the short tailed, toothless, large bodied lineage such a Pteranodon. So if Harpactognathus or anything like it had any decedents, we’d have seen them in the Cretaceous record somewhere because the archive of Cretaceous Pterosaurs is so good. Additionally, the species still lacks the reported pointed wings (flying with such is aerodynamically impossible by the way), has even more pycnofiber fuzz than Pteranodon, and would have been just as incapable of bipedal walking or perching. It’s also still smaller than many reported giant “Pterosaurs”
2. If you want to give an easy way for any folks reading to remember that Pterosaurs and Dinosaurs aren’t one and the same, here’s a comparison. Dogs and elephants are members of the same mammal family, Placentals. But a dog is not an elephant and an elephant is not a dog. Pterosaurs, dinosaurs, and crocodiles are all members of the same reptile family, Archosaurs; but aren’t the same thing.
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