A Whole New Level of Weirdness: Book Review of “Live Pterosaurs In America” (3rd Edition)
So it all started with a rather romantic notion. I have often joked that I will give up spook investigation and take up Mermaid Investigations; let’s face it, the field is less crowded. And then it occurred to me – were there not in 19th century America reports of real live flying Pterodactyls over Texas, originating as journalistic yarns and in the infamous lying contests? I vaguely recall having a book as a child in which there was a picture, daguerreotype style, of some cowboys holding a shot pterodactyl by a barn. Actually I soon found out, chatting about with friends on Facebook, that I may have be suffering from a False Memory – lots of other people remember the same picture, or something similar, but no one has ever been able to find it again. It seems the photo is as mysterious as Live Pterosaurs. In fact a photo that seems to be the one mentioned is doing the rounds — but it is nothing like my recollection. Then you can easily find a shot that was staged for a recent documentary (scroll down the page to see it though worth enjoying whole article) — again clearly not the mystery photo. After much reflection I have come to the conclusion the book I read in the 1970′s probably referenced the alleged photo, and I came to believe I had seen the actual photo in the book – I think that entirely possible. Still it is all rather interesting, if only in demonstrating just how questionable memory can be.
Anyway, do these things really still fly? I want to believe in big flying dinosaurs roaming the skies, but experience and common sense argue against it. So far I have never been chased by one as I wander through town. Still, I figured I knew a bit about them — as a child I was rather obsessed with dinosaurs, as many young boys are, and read everything I could find on them, and I thought I knew about Pterodactyls, Pteradnodons and a few others like the Rhamphorhyncus. So I recalled they were all Pterosaurs, and looked up the Order. First surprise is technically they were not dinosaurs at all (and neither were plesiosaurs and various other marine reptiles). Secondly there were incredibly diverse, and many of them looked nothing like the beasties I think of when I hear the word “Pterosaur”. And thirdly, they are very definitely extinct, dying out 65.5 million years ago, but already in decline by then. So sayeth the Wikipedia article – I did not research any of this throughly.
Interesting, but rather lacking emotional satisfaction. I wanted to read about people who had been chased by pterodactyls! :D So I started to Google for any eye witness testimony, uncovered a funny but utterly unconvincing YouTube video, and then suddenly found that there actually was a “Living Pterosaur” research community, a fringe even within cryptozoology. Even better, there were several books. Most of the research appears to be on “Ropens”, allegedly living Pterosaurs in Papua New Guinea. Now I’m afraid I have not read anything on that, and can’t really comment, for as I browsing I spotted a book “Live Pterosaurs in America” by Jonathan David Whitcomb, a nonfiction analysis of actual sightings in the USA. This I had to own, so I immediately ordered it from Amazon, and a few days later it was mine! And you know what — I’m glad I bought it, and have enjoyed reading it.
The book contains 35 contemporary eye witness accounts from the USA of what appear to be live pterosaur sightings, and a great deal of analysis. Undeterred by the intrinsic seeming absurdity of believing that Pterosaurs can remain undetected in the USA (which as Whitcomb points out is a fallacious argument: they have not remained undetected at all, or he would not have eyewitness testimony — “largely undetected” perhaps?) the author has actually taken seriously and tracked down people who claim to have seen these things, talking to them on the phone and by email. He is not alone – as well as the various expeditions to PNG to look for the alleged pterosaurs there, there appears to be a small but very active research community looking for live pterosaurs in the USA. I get the impression form the book it is rather competitive, and political, and perhaps as backstabbing as any other part of cryptozoology seems to be — but then again maybe not. You see Whitcomb, and the majority of the researchers are Creationists, and not shy about proclaiming the fact.
So here I am, a very convinced “Evolutionist” who has written a great deal on Darwin, Chambers, Russel Wallace etc reading a book on Live Pterosaur sightings by an out loud and proud Creationist. And you know what? It really makes no difference to the case. So Whitcomb believes in living pterosaurs? The sceptics who attack his research are equally convinced they are extinct. It’s an issue it is rather hard to maintain a strict impartiality on. To be honest, I have no problem with people holding strong beliefs on any issue, so long as they are aware of them and their potential biases, and so long as they declare them openly. I worked out Whitcomb was a Creationist by a third of the way through his book, but the last couple of chapters make it totally explicit. I was rather amused that he agrees with Dawkins that it is impossible to hold a considered Theistic Evolution viewpoint, and I was too tired to really get what he thinks of I.D – it is a good thing I gather, but not Creationism, as far as he is concerned — but I am convinced that the Creationist beliefs of the living pterosaur folks are going to stop a lot of people in the UK at least from even bothering to look at their stuff, which is a shame. You see I think you might have to be a Creationist to actually stick your neck out and look for these wonderful flying beasties, and if they do exist it would be no surprise if only the “Creation Scientists” went looking for them. Creationism actually does not play much of a role in the theories in the book, and I’m still very vague about what exactly a living Pterosaur would prove from a Y.E.C perspective, but I am happy to put away any prejudices and read the book on the strength of the evidence and argument provided, and lay aside my philosophical and scientific differences with these guys. If they can convince me of living pterosaurs, I guess they might convince me of other stuff :) Let’s face it, convincing me pterodactyls are swooping over California as I type is going to take a lot.
And ultimately, I am afraid I still doubt it is true. However, I am more open to Pterosaurs in other parts of the world than I was before, and I am much more open to the possibility of live Pterosaurs. I actually find it hard to type those those three words together “possibility” + “live” + “pterosaurs”, so strong is my ingrained prejudice against the case. After all, during my dinosaur phase (aged 5-10 roughly) the one thing I knew absolutely was that they were all extinct. (and watching the USAF fly overhead, and listening to the Cold War sabre rattling, I gloomily pondered as a very young child how soon humanity might join them; vague fears that still manifest sometimes today :( )
Whitcomb’s eyewitnesses don’t really convince me greatly, though they are at the heart of his case. 35 is really not very many, and given there are radio controlled Pterosaur models out there, some of the sightings do seem to be questionable. The testimony given is rather bare, culled from emails, but it could be that Whitcomb’s writing style (generally readable, occasionally jars, perhaps a cultural thing) without all the usual journalistic fluff like “Ada was just putting the kettle on as sunshine played across the blinds…” — none of that in Whitcombe’s reports, just his questions asked and the answers rendered verbatim — doe snot really sell the witnesses. He is definitely sceptical of the testimony he receives, and shows critical thinking about testimony issues, and I must say is an intelligent bloke by the sound of his book.
Nope, my problem is that thousands of Americans have reported being abducted by Flying Saucers. Dozens of people in the UK in the last decade have reported seeing leprechauns or fairies. Bigfoot is still big in the USA; and mystery black cats, usually pumas, roam across the British countryside. As to ghost sightings, well they are so common as to pass without remark. Now I’m not a priori dismissing any of these ideas, and I have certainly spent a good part of my life working on the ghosts issue. My point is that people seem to have a huge range of high strangeness encounters with very odd entities. I would be rather more surprised if no one at all was seeing Pterosaurs in the USA. I do wonder if any have been reported in the last century or this in the UK? The fact people experience something,and it seems very real to them, does not necessarily tell us anything about its ontological status. While Whitcomb addresses hallucinations as an explanation for experiences and dismisses it, well I’m not so sure as I know hallucinations can be surprisingly common in the sane from the medical literature, and ultimately I agree with Whitcomb it does not explain collective cases (ones with multiple witnesses) well. Note I’m not actually proposing any mechanism for the weird Fortean encounters – people have proposed all kinds of explanations from ultraterrestrials to demons to irruptions of the unconscious in to normal life (I guess all three might be the same thing!?) — I’m just noting that it seems hard to accept the evidence for living pterosaurs as more compelling than say the evidence for alien abduction or phantom black dogs. In terms of quantity, and richness of the testimony offered, I must say it seems rather less, by an order of magnitudes in the first case and a great deal compared with Black Shuck. :( Still, if one of Whitcomb’s witnesses was right about what they saw, and it was a physical real living beastie, well his case wins. I really want it to be true, because — well living Pterodactyls, how cool? :D
So if I am not that impressed by the individual witness reports, why do I think Whitcomb’s book is worthwhile and interesting? Because while the individual cases are perhaps weak, he draws a good statistical case that something is going on from his tiny sample. Put simply, the physical traits of the pterosaurs described by the witnesses do not seem to reflect the Hollywood stereotype of the pterodactyl we all know. There are different types of creature which emerge from the data, and the majority have attributes which are surprising. I won’t discuss what these are here, because it makes faking easier, but you can find out by buying his book. Unfortunately the descriptions could be just down to a misremembered mismatch of picture of pterosaurs in books, and yet if you accept his hypothesis that not one but two and perhaps several species of Pterosaurs have survived in the USA, well then I guess it’s a good argument. However witnesses vary greatly in physical descriptions – wing spans he cites in the stats section range from 2 to 30 feet, with a bizarrely even distribution. I say bizarre because I would have thought hoaxes and hallucinations would have been clustered more in the larger range, and ditto if common sources like movies or dinosaur documentaries informed the sightings. The even distribution may well be down to the actual problems of identifying the wing span of a bird in flight – try it, I’m rubbish at judging height, and you have little to compare it with. Misidentification of birds or bats is not ruled out by the data, and some of the sightings were close and on the ground, but still I am rather surprised at the distribution of estimated wing spans. Something that Whitcomb does not address is the range of colours seen – browns, tans, greys and black predominate, but one brightly coloured alleged pterosaur stood out as fairly convincing for exactly this reason. As no one knows what colour they were, the lack of agreement among witnesses is worrying if these are real creatures.
Another interesting feature is that witnesses reported they either definitely did not have feathers or probably did not have feathers. This may be down to Whitcomb’s selection criteria; he states he does not investigate reports of feathered sightings, leaving that to bird watchers. Now recently I have read in the media reports of new fossil pterosaurs with feathers, but tracking down the reports has shown these are proto-feathers, the bristles already known to be a feature of pterosaurs, just more evolved. It may provide some evidence for the currently heretical idea that birds may have evolved from pterosaurs not dinosaurs, or it may be an interesting case of parallel evolution (or Creation, if you are a Live Pterosaurs investigator :D ) but it is not a fatal objection – pterosaurs were not feathered, though with 65 million years to evolve they might not look much like the fossils we have (Whitcomb interestingly holds an Old Earth, Young Life model of Creationism, not YEC). He makes the rather good point that a lot of witnesses actually were not sure if the thing had feathers or not, but were inclined to say not. I think that certainly does reduce the likelihood of hoaxing – a hoaxer’s story or a hallucination would surely definitely not have feathers, but it does not rule out genuine misidentification of big birds.
I still have not really made much of a case for why I found the book engaging, but the answer is that Whitcomb surprised me. A number of the sightings suggest bioluminescence. I really did not expect that. Glow in the dark pterosaurs in the USA? It just gets weirder. I was not particularly convinced by the chapter linking pterosaurs to the Marfa Lights, but they hypothesis linking bioluminescence to bat hunting activities made sense I guess, and this very unexpected aspect of the sightings really did make me think he could be on to something. I found this feature by far the most intriguing: if I was going to invent a pterosaur story it would never occur to me to say the creature glowed, flickered or shone in the dark! It is apparently a feature of the PNG reports, so I guess people who have read Whitcomb’s book on that may add such a detail, but it really is rather odd.
I think by this time if you have read this far you will want to see an actual witness report. here are a couple of extracts from Whitcomb’s blog, the first from Virginia, the second from Georgia. They give you a pretty good feel for Whitcomb’s terse style, and his rather short reports on what was seen. I am delighted howver to see he has set up a game camera in a Southern California site, and is getting lots of shots – maybe one will show the elusive pterosaur seen by the witnesses in their backyard. I certainly shall follow his Live Pterosaur blog in the future. However again we see another niggling problem for me — if all the sightings were in say Nevada, I could buy it much easier than I can the idea these things live all over the USA but never get photographed. OK, there are rare big animals like as Whitcomb points out mountain lions that are rarely seen, but they don’t flap around in the sky! If nocturnal predators, maybe, just maybe. I would not stake my money on it, but I’m not the expert.
So in conclusion, what do I think of the book? It’s not polished, it’s not gripping at least in style (though the accounts are fascinating and Whitcomb makes some clever arguments) and it’s all way beyond my boggle threshold: I’m slightly more inclined to believe in live pterosaurs in the USA now than before I read it (which is to be fair not very surprising at all, given my ***almost*** complete disbelief before I read the book) , but I’m afraid I think the possibility is still very very remote they exist, but it certainly is worth investigating, and I must applaud all the work Whitcomb and colleagues put in. I fear many sceptics won’t even bother to go look for themselves (unless we get sightings in the UK that is not an option for me) or bother to carefully read Whitcomb’s book and look at his case. It is definitely worth reading, and well argued in the main. I would recommend buying his book available from Amazon.co.uk here for under £9. I’m humble enough to admit my opinion on the matter is pretty worthless, as I have not read the literature, have not investigated a single sighting, and know almost nothing about pterosaurs living or fossil. A sceptic of living pterosaur claims who does know his stuff is palaeontologist Glen Kuban and has his critique of living pterosaur claims can be found here. I found him from Whitcomb’s book, and I still think you should read the book as well as Kuban’s page, just in case you were planning some lazy debunking. :)
I may be a sceptic at heart, but I have no simple answers to what people are experiencing. The 35 cases Whitcomb gives may be the tip of the ice berg – he has estimated I believe 14,000 sightings in the USA, but I think that is extrapolation based on the fact most witnesses won’t come forward. You don’t hear a lot about local newspaper reports of pterosaur sightings though, and one thing that would be really interesting is if anyone could search archives for such, and link them on a web page. I respect the work and dedication of these chaps, and one thing I am certain of.
I still want to see a living pterosaur, because it would be a mindblowing thing to witness! I just hope they are real :D