An exploration of our Earth's ever-captivating fauna through musings on the bizarre side of Zoology, Cryptozoology, Paleontology, and Paleoanthropology

Saturday, June 21, 2014

On The Matter of Alleged Civil War Pterosaur Photographs And Modern Day Reports

Illustration by Thomas Finley depicting the form of animal which has been proposed to be the inspiration for reports of mystery bat-like animals in Africa and the Americas. 
Although it is common knowledge among serious cryptozoological researchers that such images are mere hoaxes, photographs alleging to portray the bodies of relict pterosaurs surrounded by soldiers or hunters have been circulating on the Internet once again. These images often come in compilations such as the one which was featured on the They Live Among Us Facebook page. As it appears that my leaving of comments has still not helped to hinder such innocent misinformation, I thought that it would be best to formally address these photographs here.
A highly misinformed, spurious image compilation from the They Live Among Us page on Facebook.
One of the 'Civil War pterosaur' photographs most often alleged to be genuine is that which shows an apparent Pteranodon specimen. There have been radical creationist claims that this photograph was taken near the city of Vicksburg in 1864 and that the infamous Freaky Links pterosaur photograph (shown at the bottom of the aforementioned image compilation) is an intentional doppelgänger of this 'legitimate' photograph. However, as cryptozoological researcher Dale Drinnon has duly remarked upon, there are multiple red flags in the photograph itself which reveal it to be the almost certain work of photoshop.1 These indicators include the lack of fingers grasping the rifle held by one alleged solider in the photograph, the presence of edge halos typical to photoshop manipulation, and signs of a blur filter usage.1
 The Civil War 'Pteranodon' photograph in question. (Source)
Another alleged photograph of a freshly killed pterosaur is that which shows the 'specimen' tied to a wall and surrounded by hunters. This arrangement appears to be a deliberate mockup of the notoriously lost 'Thunderbird photograph'. The backstory of this apparently missing image is that several researchers and journalists claimed to have seen the same enigmatic photograph, showing a large form of unknown bird surrounded by men wearing 'cowboy clothing', in the 1950s or early 1960s.2 There has been a degree of uncertainty as to whether the 'animal' looked like a vulture or a pterosaur and as to whether it was nailed to a wall or laying on the ground, as alleged witnesses have varied in recounting this.2 Biologist Ivan Sanderson supposedly possessed a photostat copy which was lost while on loan to other researchers, and no one has been able to locate another print of the image after this mishap.2 Dale Drinnon thinks that he may have identified the image as a hoaxed photostat which used a photograph showing outlaw John Sontag's death as a basis.2 While Dale's proposition certainly is interesting, the probability remains that the clashing recountings of the photograph's appearance suggest it to have been the product of misremembering. While the 'specimen' mentioned at the start of this segment does bear a resemblance to the pterosaur species Pterodactylus, further examination on my behalf has shown this resemblance to be its great betrayer. In discussion of the photograph, Four Corners cryptozoological researcher Jc Johnson has pointed out that the image shows what appears to be deer legs hanging next to the men. Thus, it is likely that this image is photoshopped with the creator having replaced the deer with the alleged pterosaur but missed a few of the discreet features. Upon seeing the image, I thought that the 'pterosaur' looked rather familiar. I searched for Pterodactylus models on the Internet and, sure enough, found a match from the DK images website (image of the referenced model is reproduced below). Another case solved and more basis to state that proposing these faux photographs as being related to already problematic claims of relict pterosaurs is highly spurious and unwarranted.
The alleged 'hunters with dead pterosaur' photograph. Further investigation reveals it to be the work of photoshop. (Image source is here)
A Pterodactylus model which is a precise match for the alleged pterosaur in the photograph, allowing for the necessary filters and adjustments. (Source ;The originally referenced image appears to have been removed from the Internet, but I subsequently located an image of the model from the Fact Monster site)
While it is a romantic strain of thought popularized by multiple novels and films, the idea of relict

 pterosaurs suffers from many of the same issues that other 'prehistoric survivor' hypotheses are belittled by. These include the lack of any recent fossil record for the reptiles, the lack of niches not occupied by the birds and bats which evolved following the animals' extinction, and the fact that descriptions of alleged 'living pterosaurs' bear very little resemblance to the fuzzy and hot-blooded animals which paleontological studies show that they were (with some reports contradictorily describing variable features such as beaked or ape-like faces).3 While there have been claims of indigenous people relating remarkably lifelike pterosaur descriptions, claims mostly coming from young earth creationists which further inconveniences the matter, the case is far from clean cut. As stated by paleozoologist Darren Naish:
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. ... 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.3
Apart from the aforementioned possible origin as a cultural motif of sorts, it is likely that many alleged living pterosaur reports were misidentifications of bird species such as eagles, storks, cranes, frigate birds, and hornbills.3 Two separate cases documented by Loren Coleman and Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans further invalidate the relict pterosaur hypothesis. Coleman apparently spoke to an alleged pterosaur witness in Mexico who, upon being shown a pterosaur reconstruction, identified the illustration as an eagle without hesitation.3 The case recorded by Heuvelmans entails a steamer duck shot near Nahuel Huapi Lake in the 1800s which was apparently claimed to have been a living pterosaur specimen.3 These two striking accounts suggest a lack of proper species identification inherent in observations of flying animal species which has almost certainly affected living pterosaur lore in the past.3 However, there may be something substantial to some of the more detailed and compelling reports of membrane-winged mystery animals. I suspect that, if there were any relict 'pterosaur' reports which were genuine observations of unknown animals, then a form of large bat species could possibly be a tentative explanation. This notion is potentially supported by Ivan Sanderson and Gerald Russell's 1932 encounter with a purportedly unknown flying animal in the Assumbo Mountains of Cameroon.4 While hunting alongside a steep-banked river, Sanderson apparently slipped in the water when he attempted to obtain a fruit bat specimen which he shot.4 Sanderson attempted to gain his footing again, but his companion called out in warning as an approximately eagle-sized animal suddenly soar straight towards the biologist.4 The animal reportedly possessed uniformly black skin, large membranous wings, and a semicircle of pointed white teeth set about their own width apart from one another on its opened lower jaw.4 Correspondence with local native groups provided the information that this alleged animal was apparently ethnoknown and referred to as the 'olitiau'.4  The men determined that the animal was a form of unrecognized bat species, with Sanderson later displaying much unhappiness with the fact that his sighting was being cited by some as support for the relict pterosaur hypothesis.4 Interestingly, in his 1965 evaluation of Sanderson's description, Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans was reminded of the large and rather irregular hammerhead bat (Hypsignathus monstrosus).4 These remarkable animals are the largest African bats known, with wingspans up to three feet in length.5 Males are sexually dimorphic in possessing a large rostrum and squared off head, as well as pendulous lips and cheek pouches.5 Loud vocalizations such as guttoral honking and croaking further add to the rather striking characteristics of the hammerhead bat.5 As the fruit bat specimen which Sanderson had obtained moments before his supposed encounter with the olitiau was apparently a Hypsignathus monstrosus, Heuvelmans noted that the mystery animal may have been a parent or mate of the individual which he shot.4 Mating H. monstrous tend to gather in large groups alongside stream or riverbeds5, making this proposition all the more reasonable. Furthermore, hammerhead bats do possess the widely-spaced teeth remarked upon by Sanderson (see the image of a hammerhead bat skull reproduced below).4 Still, Heuvelmans held some hesitance towards the idea of Sanderson having misidentified and exaggerated the size of a hammerhead bat, and concluded that a similar yet unknown member of Megachiroptera (the order of so-called 'megabats') better fits the olitiau.4 My own research suggests that a large form of H. monstrous-like megabat could potentially account for some of the more enigmatic descriptions of membrane-winged mystery animals. Although nowhere near as large as Sanderson's supposed mystery bat, new species of bat continued to be discovered at an alarming rate. Striking recent examples include Hypsugo dolichodon (notable for its remarkable canines and larger body size than other pipistrelle bat species) and Styloctenium mindorensis (described by locals but met with skepticism by research biologists). Still, this is a purely tentative proposition for the time being unless better data arises. An alternate hypothesis along these lines which I have considered is that the reports outside of Africa may actually be of known hammerhead bats either accidentally or purposefully released into the wild. H. monstrous has been long suggested as an origin of tales describing the dubious 'Jersey devil', but it should be noted that Brian Regal has done some excellent work regarding the likelihood that the 'devil' lore originated from colonial socio-political matters.6 Tentative thought aside, even though the possibility of relict pterosaurs is quite unlikely there may very well be something substantial to occasional reports of unidentified flying animals with membranous wings. Returning to the main focus of this article in conclusion, it is important that Internet goers are knowledgeable regarding the hoaxed Civil War 'pterosaur' photographs which circulate all too often and that they understand that devoted cryptozoological researchers do not fall for them.
The remarkable hammerhead bat in profile. (Source)
The impressive skull of a male hammerhead bat; are such animals fodder for reports of membrane-winged mystery animals?
(Image source is here)
  1. Drinnon, Dale A. "Surviving Plesiosaurs and Pterosaurs Part 1." Frontiers of Zoology. N.p., 16 May 2012. Web. 21 June 2014.
  2. Drinnon, Dale A. "That Thunderbird Photo." Frontiers of Zoology. N.p., 9 May 2011. Web. 21 June 2013.
  3. Naish, Darren. "Pterosaurs Alive In, Like, the Modern Day!" Tetrapod Zoology. N.p., 23 Dec. 2007. Web. 21 June 2013.
  4. Heuvelmans, Bernard. On the Track of Unknown Animals. New York: Hill and Wang, 1965. Print.
  5. "Descriptions and Articles about the Hammerhead Bat (Hypsignathus Monstrosus) - Encyclopedia of Life." Encyclopedia of Life. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 June 2014.
  6. Regal, Brian. "The Jersey Devil: The Real Story." The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 June 2014.


  1. Great to see that you discovered the original picture source, namely the DK Pterodactylus, for the supposed thunderbird in the 8-hunters-plus-thunderbird photo! Another hoax conclusively solved.

    1. Thanks Dr. Shuker, I appreciate your commentary.

  2. Good job. It may be worth noting that some of the reported sightings/photos of supposed pterosaurs are the product of misidentifications and wishful thinking, not necessarily intentional hoaxing. I wrote a bit on this topic several years ago at the Texas Cryptid Hunter's blog:

    Alton Higgins

  3. Another desperate attempt ro rescue a failed multi-million year extinction for dinosaurs. There has been an unbroken history of humans living with dinosaurs worldwide since prehistoric times. An attempt to refute a photo here and a story there does not succeed in wiping out a wealth of eyewitness and historical accounts of humans interacting with dinosaurs of various desctriptions that continues to this day.

    1. the "eyewitness" and "historical accounts" of humans interacting with fire-breathing dragons, griffins (eagle-headed lions with wings), unicorns and flying horses...?

  4. Another desperate attempt ro rescue a failed multi-million year extinction for dinosaurs. There has been an unbroken history of humans living with dinosaurs worldwide since prehistoric times. An attempt to refute a photo here and a story there does not succeed in wiping out a wealth of eyewitness and historical accounts of humans interacting with dinosaurs of various desctriptions that continues to this day.

  5. actually I found the original of the image, here it is and much bigger and higher resolution to the diagram photo


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