Thursday, 1 July 2010

Pterosaurs and Cryptozoology

For a century, almost as long as pterosaurs have been in the popular domain, people have occasionally reported sightings of live animals.  They are usually reported by word of mouth and there seems to be little, if any, supporting evidence.  I am a doubter myself, as I see two trends at work here.  Firstly, the reports of sightings have been coloured with the changes in scientific thinking about pterosaur anatomy over the years.  Secondly, most of the sightings occur in areas where UFO sightings are common.  Another concern of mine is that I cannot find a sighting reported by a biologist or a palaeontologist with detailed knowledge.
Some reports are obviously misguided - examples like frigate birds seen by tourists and storks seen in dim light.  There have also been a number of clever or crude hoaxes which have been disproved.  However, there are some reports that cannot be resolved due to lack of evidence.
Kongamato - This is a creature reported from East Africa by lake fishermen.  The name roughly translates as "attacker of boats" The culprit could be a long necked species of stork, but with no firm evidence, this legend cannot be verified.
Ropen - Reported from the Malaysian islands and New Guinea, this large flying creature is reputed to be a very large long tailed pterosaur.  Sightings have not been confirmed.  There are also local island names such as Seclo-bali, Duwas and Kor. Occasionally there are stories about the creature being bio-luminescent, though this appears to be less common than the long tailed flying creature that is seen at dusk.
The basic science would suggest that these sightings are misguided.  The last evidence of pterosaurs comes from 64 million years ago as fossil bones.  At the time of the large pterosaurs the atmospheric oxygen level was about 4% higher that it is today which would make such a large flying creature a physical improbability in the modern day atmosphere.  It is also the case that the long tailed pterosaurs show no fossil evidence in the Upper Cretaceous Era.  Such a creature would be unsafe around forested areas as it would risk damaging its wings. It would most likely rest and nest in a flat open area as well as having a large ranging pattern of flight to find food and mates.  Such a population would not be viable for any length of time without at least a few dozen breeding individuals which would be clearly visible and easy to find with modern technology.
Modern day pterosaurs would be much easier to find than Big Foot, Yeti or the Loch Ness monster as they would need to fly in the open to move between feeding sites.  Clearly, chasing smoke can be fun for some enthusiasts.  I would be delighted if someone found a modern day pterosaur, but I am not going to join the search myself.