There are no living pterosaurs, and “ropen” is a stupid fantasy

I was recently getting dunned by kooks insisting that a live pterosaur had been found. I’d love to see a pterosaur, but I’m afraid they’ve been extinct for over 65 million years; I’d also like to have a conversation with my great-great grandfather, John Page Hurt of Saylersville, Kentucky (I’m pretty sure he fought in the Civil War…on the wrong side), but I think we can be realistic about the likelihood of that happening. I took a look at the pterosaur information anyway, though, and discovered something interesting. There isn’t any evidence. There’s just one fanatic.

Here’s the kind of evidence they present. You’d expect a blurry photo of some flying creature, right? Or maybe claw marks, or scattered fewmets…none of which would be particularly persuasive. But no — we don’t even get that much. We get photos like this:

Professor Peter Beach tells Whitcomb how the bright light quickly flew up from the tree

Professor Peter Beach tells Whitcomb how the bright light quickly flew up from the tree

That’s it. Not a picture of the creature, but a picture of a guy pointing to a place where he claims to have seen a glowing light. Or sometimes we get this:


A generic picture of some trees in Kentucky, where some guy said he saw a pterosaur. Twice, no less.

These stories are terrible and pointless. There is no evidence here.

And then something else emerges — all the sources sound dreadfully familiar. Here’s a list of some of the sites I found, and the authors’ names where available.

Same stories, same pedantic, boring style, same lack of understanding of what constitutes evidence. It turns out that they’re all by the same guy, Jonathan Whitcomb, who’s been busily dropping turds all over the internet to make it look like there is an active community of researchers tracking down the wily pterosaur. There isn’t. And he confesses to rampant sock puppetry!

If you had Googled something like “live pterosaur” in 2005, the first page may have included a site that included the words “stupid,” “dinosaur,” and “lies” in the URL. Yes, it was libel, and that site is probably still out there; but try searching on “live pterosaur” today and you won’t see that libelous site listed on the first three pages of Google. You will find that most of the pages are positive about the possibility of modern living pterosaurs. The few that are negative are at least not libelous.

My purpose in using the pen name “Norman Huntington” differed from that of Alice Sheldon, but is was equally valid. I got around potential bias in readers by using that name instead of my own. The difference is this: I was trying to attract attention to the basic idea of modern pterosaurs, not to my own writing ability. (In fact I altered my writing style for those blog posts using “Huntington.”)

But it’s OK that he’s playing these circular SEO games, because he’s not trying to peddle his writing commercially — it’s just so gosh-darn important that everyone know about these pathetic pterosaur stories, so he’s just got to play these sneaky games to avoid criticism and get his essential story told.

There’s another motive, too: he’s a creationist who thinks finding a ptersoaur would defeat evolution, and he’s using his book and web pages to promote the Mormon religion.

Consider Helaman 5:50, regarding the conversion of many Lamanites, after the miracle in the prison with the brother-missionaries Lehi and Nephi. Lamanites who did not see the miraculous fire believed the words of the eyewitnesses who did see it: “And it came to pass that they did go forth, and did minister unto the people, declaring throughout all the regions round about all the things which they had heard and seen, insomuch that the more part of the Lamanites were convinced of them, because of the greatness of the evidences which they had received.” Latter-day saints rejoice for those who listen to the spiritual testimonies of those who had received confirmation of the truth by the power of the Holy Spirit. Just as missionaries may appear, on the surface, to differ from those they teach, eyewitnesses of strange flying creatures are from various countries and cultures, appearing to differ from those who have been raised in Western countries in which universal-extinction ideas are taken for granted for dinosaurs and pterosaurs.

Greatness of the evidences, indeed.

There’s also another place where you can find the story of the living pterosaur: the wikipedia article on “ropen”. It’s pure mush regurgitated from Whitcomb’s pages; the only sources cited are from Whitcomb, with the exception of mentioning two paranormal reality TV shows, “Destination Truth” (on SyFy) and “Monster Quest” (on the History channel). It’s a completely credulous and pro-bullshit page, and is a perfect example of why I don’t let my students ever cite Wikipedia. It’s also got Whitcomb’s fingerprints all over it — he was formerly an editor going by the name “jondw”, although he seems to be an ex-editor now. The page that contributes to his PR efforts for the totally fictitious creature “ropen” still stands, though.


  1. says

    It’s not just fringe topics of course, but when it comes to fringe topics people are obsessed with eye witness testimony. And it’s true, eye witness testimony can be important. But only if it’s corroborated by other evidence. Often it’s a variation of argument from authority: of course Joe Blow’s story is true because he’s a scientist/astronaut/policeman. The fact Joe Blow’s story is missing any verifying evidence is ignored, and people pointing out this are accused of being closed minded, or being in on the coverup.

  2. wirebash says

    While I’m no longer a creationist, I admit that the dino nerd in me still goes crazy over any indication that a real life Walking With Dinosaurs might be possible. It makes me sad that every story ever turns out to be a fake.

    Thanks PZ, for crushing another dream of mine…

    Now I have to go back to looking at birds and pretending they are dinosaurs, while pterosaurs don’t have any descendants alive today.

  3. twas brillig (stevem) says

    Gotta ask the obvious: “If you see these pterosaurs so often, why don’t you carry a camera with you; all the time? And learn how to focus it, too? You know those ‘smartphones’ they got? Takes still and video photos; super easy.” — Capt. Obvious

    Is he just getting picyune to justify his belief? That is; just cuz there’s fossils, doesn’t conclusively prove creature is extinct. Some got fossiled while the rest lived on. How do we KNOW it is extinct species? Can’t we be wrong about that? — I know, seriously, there would be tonnes of miscellany evidence if some still lived. But is this guy just oblivious, or just trying to make himself famous? Thumbing his nose at scientistas for being elitist know-it-alls, etc?

  4. magistramarla says

    My grandson watched some shows this summer that showed some idiotic people claiming to have seen Bigfoot.
    It was the same kind of breathless “eye witness” account.
    I am so sad that the former educational cable channels have sunk so low.

  5. zenlike says

    I just love these ‘if we just found Nessie/a pterodactyl/a dinosaur in Congo, because that would prove evolution wrong’ type of creationists.

    Because they waste an amazing amount of time chasing and promoting their bullshit, and it would totally not prove evolution wrong if indeed they ever found a living dino/plesiosaur/pterodactyl.

  6. whheydt says

    Now as for PZs point about his great-great-grandfather….I know my great-gradfather fought in the Civil War (also on the wrong side) from both documentary evidence, such as a biographical article in the company newsletter after he retired and his obituary in his home town paper when he died, but also because he talked to my father about it while both were alive. (My great-grandfather lived from 1843 to 1936. My father from 1910 to 1975.)

  7. zekehoskin says

    Consider the scene in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World”, which probably started all this. The establishment scientist has been dissing the discoverers because they showed no evidence. He sees a live pterodactyl, promptly admits he was wrong and apologizes, and everything is hunky-dory. Zero of the we-can’t-be-descended-from-monkeys-because-there-are-still-monkeys crap. He does ignore the concept of genetic drift, but dammit, that’s a century ago.

  8. jambonpomplemouse says

    “Professor Peter Beach tells Whitcomb how the bright light quickly flew up from the tree”

    What? pterosaurs glow? Obviously these people aren’t seeing a long extinct flying lizard. They are seeing the mythical phoenix! A culture on earth believed that was a real thing, and since humans are incapable of imagining things that do not exist in real life, it must be real!

    How long until the Harry Potter novels are forgotten, and someone finds them and uses them to suggest that hippogryphs and house elves were real?

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    Didn’t Alice Sheldon use the name “James Tiptree, Jr” (and other pen names) because, as an ex-employee of the CIA, she faced a contractual obligation to publish her writings under a pseudonym?

    How does getting around “bias” (aka bullshit detection) compare with that?

  10. jpf says

    @ekinodum: Whitcomb is aware of Objective Ministries. It’s funny in the context of his sockpuppetry how the existence of that site makes him feel the need to insist he’s a real person: “Believe what you will, but I am a real person: Jonathan D. Whitcomb.”

  11. microraptor says

    I think I saw a couple episodes of that Destination Truth show. It was rather impressive in that they actually examined the evidence for the creature they were looking for (that Congo River sauropod), looked at the area it was supposed to live in, and concluded that the most likely explanation was that people were just mistaken and any deaths attributed to the creature were probably actually the result of boat accidents or attacks by hippos or crocodiles.

  12. evodevo says

    Where in Ky was that supposed to be? Looks kinda like the Palisades to me. Maybe the idiot saw a blue heron or something. They’ve only been around my area for about 20 years. If you squint real hard, I guess they’d look like a pterosaur … or something…..

  13. Trebuchet says

    Well, dang. You fooled me. I was sure this was going to be a viral marketing campaign for an upcoming documentary on The Science Channel.

  14. Callinectes says

    My feeling regarding pterosaurs is that they would be extinct either way. I think they would have evolved into a new class as unique as birds and mammals, and probably become flightless in the process. I imagine, at the very least, robust Azhdarchid-like forms with reduced, absent or re-purposed wing membranes.