Pterosaur Sightings and Photos of . . . Whatever
By the cryptozoology author Jonathan Whitcomb
When this post was written, in 2013, I had nothing like a solid conviction that “photo #3” was a genuine recording of a recently-deceased pterosaur (19th century): closer to a 50% belief than a 100% belief. See a much more recent post:
That is the joint declaration of Clifford Paiva and Jonathan Whitcomb, concerning the authenticity of the pterosaur image, announced on January 14, 2017.
Original April 4, 2013, Post on the Pterosaur Photograph
A critical support for the concept of modern living pterosaurs is the accumulation of sighting reports of those flying creatures. Direct eyewitness testimony of a pterosaur sighting is essential, even if we have to wait many years for photographic evidence.
My associates and I hope that our efforts will someday directly yield photographic evidence and even the capture of one or more of these flying creatures; but for the moment, let’s consider photos that have already been held up as images of possible pterosaurs, notwithstanding my associates and I are not among those who have contributed photographs. (I’m leaving out photos of flying lights, for little or no form or features have been revealed in them.)
Several photos of an apparent “pterodactyl” or Pteranodon are found floating around the internet. Let’s look at three of them, beginning our examinations with a photo of the most questionable of three possible pterosaurs:
Photo #1: Consider why this is probably nothing like a ropen
I found this on a web site that refers to this photo as a ropen in Papua New Guinea; but it looks familiar to me. I propose two perspectives, beginning with a direct examination.
Face value of photo #1
I presume somebody thought that the left side of the object in the sky was of a head on the end of a long neck. I can see that, although by itself it does not convince me that this is a flying creature. I can imagine a bit of the far wing showing on top of what could be the near wing. That apparent tail, however, presents a problem. It’s too fat and turned up far too much. Overall, this could very well be something non-living, something very unlike any flying creature and unrelated to any pterosaur sighting.
My memory and photo #1
This looks much like a photo I received years ago. Somebody (I believe it was a lady) sent me a photo that was taken while she was traveling back east somewhere, I think it was in New England. She took the photo through the window of the vehicle in which she was traveling, but she did not see anything in the sky—not before, during , or immediately after snapping the shot. The object in the sky was not noticed until after she looked at the photo.
In other words, if this photo #1 is the one I remember, it was not recorded in Papua New Guinea but in the eastern United States, and nobody saw any flying creature at the time it was recorded. If could be just a leave blowing in the wind. Case closed.
The next two are related, for #2 appears to be a recent hoax that took photo #3 as a model:
Photo #2: Imitation of an older photograph
Reputation of photo #2
From what I have read on one post, this is an acknowledged fake by the creators, not necessarily with any Photoshop work but by using Civil War reenactors and a cheap construction to look like a large winged creature, a hoax in more recent years. It is said to have been created for the fourth TV episode (“Coelacanth This!”) of FreakyLinks, which was produced by Haxan (producers of the “Blair Witch Project”) and possibly for one other episode of FreakyLinks.
Face Value of photo #2
I’ve had only limited experience examining genuine photos of Civil War soldiers, but I’ll submit my observations. It’s unusual, though not rare, for a Civil War soldier posing for a photograph to fold his arms across his chest. In this photo, however, two soldiers in a row do just that, making it more strange. In addition, these look like ordinary soldiers, not colonels or generals, so we should expect thin young men, and the one on the left looks to me like he’s too big around the middle: more like a Civil War reenactor soldier in the twentieth century.
Now look at the “creature” at their feet. The wings look more like fabric than flesh, and the head is difficult to make out. I don’t say it’s impossible for a large recently-deceased featherless flying creature to look like that, just that it looks more like an imitation of one.
Unless somebody can come up with some dramatic evidence to the contrary, the combination of rotten reputation and questionable appearance shoots this doctored up photograph right through the heart, although it takes just a little while to finally die.
Photo #3: Maybe the original photo of Civil War soldiers with a dead “pterodactyl” (click on it for more detail)
This may be the photograph that some people report being in a “believe it or not” kind of publication in the mid-twentieth century. According to one story, the photograph was taken near Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1864. Setting aside the question of authenticity and possible fraud or lack thereof, this appears to have been used as a model for the photo #2 hoax.
I think I’m one of the eyewitnesses . . . I mean I myself may have seen this photo in an old book. But memory can play tricks on us, so I don’t place great emphasis on that; I’ll need to do more research.
Despite the canoe-like wings, photo #3 is the most credible of these three, by far, believe it or not. My intention, however, is not to force this into an all-or-nothing, sure-thing-or-fake, judgment. Assign it whatever credibility you like, after considering the following. (And don’t forget to click on photo #3 when necessary, to get a closer view. Please take your time on this.)
Overexposure of the tree on the right (photo #3) impresses me; it’s common in Civil War era photography. Compare it with the unquestionably genuine photo below:
Genuine photograph, maybe around the mid-19th century
In the above photograph, look past the old men and past the carriage. Notice the grass that’s pure white. I believe that patch of ground was in sunlight during the photo session, making it over-exposed in the extreme. Photo #3 is far more impressive in this overexposure appearance than photo #2.
Now click on #3 and notice the faces of the soldiers. This clear focus is common in Civil War photography. Even in a far shot of many persons, individuals can often be recognized because of sharp focus. When I blew up photo #2, however, the men were out of focus, probably done on purpose to try to make it look like an old photo.
To construe a canoe (but see also Addendum #1 at bottom of post)
Whenever I see this photo (#3), I think of a canoe. Sceptics probably think the same thing, for those long wings give that canoe-impression. But looking deeper brings up some serious questions.
Just what kind of canoe is that in photo #3? Search Google with “canoe images” and compare. From what I’ve seen, nothing else comes close to it: Partial side-views of real canoes show nothing even remotely like the sharp point at the right of photo #3. Why would any canoe be constructed so long, narrow, and low, and with such a sharp point? If anybody knows of such a canoe, please let me know. I would hate to be a swimmer having an accident with that kind of canoe.
The point is simple: If that long thing is not a canoe, it’s a non-canoe, and our mental processes that bring up “canoe” are irrelevant.
Canoes on Lake Louise (but see also Addendum #1)
A skeptic might point out that if those wings are not canoes, they look very poor aerodynamically. That’s true. But dead creatures don’t fly, and that curving of the wings might have come from the effects of death.
Wings of the Flying Creature
A skeptic might dismiss photo #3 because the wings are too pointed to be the wings of a Pteranodon. Well, the wings of that type of pterosaur were indeed quite pointed, even if not as much, perhaps, as what is shown in this photo. But why must a huge recently-deceased creature in recent centuries be precisely like a Pteranodon in every way? (We’ll return to the Pteranodon interpretation later.)
A skeptic might ask why soil appears in the indented parts of those wings. Was somebody trying to hide something, trying to cover up a fraud by covering it with soil? Consider a more reasonable explanation. One or more soldiers had started to bury the huge creature by simply digging up nearby soil and throwing it onto the thing. Somebody then learned that a photographer was nearby, so the burial ceremony stopped, the creature was dragged to an open area (where there was better lighting), and a few soldiers gathered around for the photo session. But there’s an even more likely variation of that conjecture.
Notice what appears to be grass in the soil on those wings. What’s going on? When the burial started, what soil would have been used? At first the top-most soil, the shovel would catch, namely soil with grass. I suggest that’s where the soldiers came to a stop. After all, the sergeant never said to give the monster a decent burial, just bury it. Some time could have passed before somebody caught a photographer and the monster was dragged into an open area for a photo session; of course, considering the smell, they might have also dragged the photographer. But the point is this: Who cares if the monster looks monsterously dirty? Why bother to remove the soil from the wings? Think about it and consider if that may be a more reasonable explanation.
How old is the Photograph?
On the surface, it looks like a Civil War photo, which means mid-nineteenth century. What would a skeptic suggest? Perhaps it’s not from the Civil War era but more recently, in other words a hoax created after the Civil War. But that presents a few problems. When was the photo taken?
It’s reported to have been published between 1950 and 1970, which rules out Photoshop forgery, at least for the version of the photo that was published in that printing. I remember something like this photo, probably in a book from the Pasadena (California) public library around the late 1960’s, so let’s examine the following possibilities:
- Hoax created between 1945 and 1970
- Hoax created between 1941 and 1945
- . . . between 1900 and 1941
- . . . between 1865 and 1900
Regardless of when this photograph was taken, it was done with six men who look like Civil War soldiers, in uniforms and with rifles to match. If these men are imitating a Civil War scene, after 1865, they are making a convincing imitation. I have no doubt this photo (#3) was used as a model for the hoax of photo #2. The question is could #3 also be a hoax.
Here’s the problem with a hoax created between 1945 and 1970. I know that period well, having lived through most of those years. At that time, how could anyone find six men to creature such a hoax? Who would have sufficient motivation? Believe me, hardly one person on the planet would have both motivation and ability to create an elaborate hoax photo, with six apparent Civil War soldiers, that would portray a huge recently-deceased pterodactyl. The only reasonable explanation, for a hoax between 1945 and 1970, is that a film company was making a movie. But in that case, we would have a motion picture, not just one still image, and there would probably be nothing like a mystery to the photo. In addition, we would have nothing like a convincing overexposure of a tree on the right side of a still photo.
For 1941 to 1945, forget it. Everybody was too busy with everything related to World War II.
For 1900 to 1941, a number of problems jump out. We still have a lack of motivation for creating such a hoax, although that’s not as much of an issue. Who would have, and use, the needed resources for creating such a hoax? Some of those years were during the Depression, and some were during World War I, and between those times people were too busy partying.
But seriously, a major issue is technology. Consider the quality of special effects in movies before the Depression; if you’ve seen any special effects in a movie from the 1920’s you’ll understand. Who would be capable of creating a convincing still photo of what we are examining, even if such a person had any interest in doing so?
For 1865 to 1900, we could imagine the possibility of a hoax. In the nineteenth century in general, some newspapers increased circulation, on occasion, by printing a fantastic story that had little or no basis in fact. Old photographic equipment and Civil War uniforms—both were still easily available, surely. Let’s look at this possibility more closely.
In the first three decades following the end of the Civil War, an occasional newspaper article might have originated from questionable sources. But if you’ve ever read some of those old newspaper articles, you’d know that the writing quality was less than what we’re now used to. Look again at photo #3. To create a hoax like that would be quite an undertaking before 1900.
Why would any hoaxer at that time use six men dressed in Civil War uniforms? One man would be plenty, at most two; why go to the trouble of dressing up even three men? And why go to the trouble of finding rifles for six men? It’s too much.
Consider what work would have been entailed in creating anything remotely like that huge creature. It’s out of all proportion to the quickly written sensational stories that we’re now considering, sensational articles in the nineteenth century. The two just don’t fit together: cheap writings and extraordinary photo hoaxing.
Now for another problem: Where is the newspaper article?
I’ve spent considerable time searching archives of old newspapers. It’s part of my occupation, my work in cryptozoology. (I have not limited the searching to words like “pterodactyl” or “pterosaur.”) I have found success in discovering old newspaper articles about apparent pterosaur sightings, including some in the nineteenth century. But I have not yet seen even one article similar to the story of Civil War soldiers who were photographed next to a huge recently-deceased flying creature. Why believe that such an article exists? I would be delighted if anyone else would like to research this; please let me know what you find.
I realize a skeptic could ask, “If the sighting had been real, why did the story not get into any newspaper?” I’ll tell you. It has to do with species. Humans in 1864 were the same species as we are. Why does no newpaper, that I know of, print any article about a significant pterosaur sighting that I publish in a news release, in the twenty-first century? I suggest it may be the same reason that a newspaper in 1864 would not print anything about a dead monster found by soldiers (or killed by them). Of course a convincing photograph would probably have made a huge difference, but what is the history of that photograph? Where did it go or where did it lay hidden? I hope somebody can do the research to discover those answers.
Could it have been a hoax during the Civil War?
We again have the problem with motivation and ability. Who would have both the desire and the means to contrive such an elaborate hoax photograph during the Civil War? It’s just too weird.
I know that a skeptic would wonder at that use of the expression “too weird,” when I promote the concept of modern living pterosaurs. But eyewitnesses of large pterosaur-like flying creatures have been reported to me for nine years now. To me, encountering a report of a huge pterosaur flying overhead is just part of my routine.
More evidence that the photograph is geniune
Look at the positions of the soldiers in photo #3. Notice how they’re spaced. Now see this:
The above drum and fife unit is posed together in a common form of positioning for photography.
The above group is shoulder to shoulder, to include all of them. Note that the main subject is the group of soldiers themselves. Compare it with the following:
The above group of Civil War soldiers are positioned according to the needs of the situation: around and on the big gun. This relates to the positioning seen in photo #3: appropriate to the needs of the situation.
The six soldiers in photo #3 are not lined up shoulder to shoulder, for the main subject is at their feet. The point? Something important is shown in this photo, something around which those six soldiers are positioned. In other words, this photo was not constructed from a Civil War photo of six soldiers posing as the main subject, manipulated by inserting a giant creature image onto the photograph.
So what am I suggesting? What we see at the feet of those six soldiers may be what it appears to be: a dead winged creature with a wingspan of twenty feet or more. I am open to other suggestions. What do you think?
Pteranodon interpretation and hoax possibility
This photograph shows an impressive head that looks like that of a Pteranodon, or at least somewhat like one. If this photo is an accurate version of the original, of a photograph recorded during the Civil War, we have substantial evidence for the recent existence of large living pterosaurs in North America. Why? In the middle of the nineteen century, scientists had no clear idea of how a Pteranodon head would appear, at least not as accurate an idea as we get from looking at that head in photo #3.
But I know of one other possibility, albeit a strange idea. Is it possible that the Pteranodon-like head alone was inserted into this photo? There still may be a hoax-explanation here. But then what was in the original photo? The third-from-the-left soldier has his foot on something. This requires additional investigation, but for now, it seems this photograph might, just might, be genuine.
I have since learned that some dugout canoes have pointed ends. But what is shown in photo #3 still appears rather extreme in sharpness. Does anybody have any relevant information on this?
Live Pterosaurs in America, by Jonathan Whitcomb
From the third edition of this nonfiction book:
I realize that somebody may suggest the eyewitness saw only a model pterosaur; mechanical “pterodactyls” are common. Several details rule out this explanation. The size of the creature was estimated by its appearance when it flew over the road at low altitude; I doubt that he saw a 30-foot-long model. [2007 sighting in Southern California]