Monday, 10 January 2011

Pterosaurs

One of the most evocative pieces of illustration I ever came across as a child was in the Ladybird children's edition of The Lost World (by "children's edition" they mean "abridged", because all children are stupid. Or at least, I was). The picture, which alas I do not have to-hand, depicts the night at the Challenger expedition camp when a pterosaur swoops down and snaps up the carcass they are roasting for dinner on the fire. The beast is ghoul-ish, with a cadaverous thorax and enormous glowing eyes. It made quite an impression on me, and has given me a healthy fear of giant flying beasts (not that I feel this is wildly unfounded - it seems quite sensible to avoid them).

I was thrilled to read that there is more evidence coming out of Papua New Guinea to suggest that the legendary flying critters which haunt the islands may be real. This article surmises that they may be some kind of living-fossil, descended, and possibly unchanged from, the roast-dinner-stealing pterosaurs. I find this somewhat unlikely, as I sympathise with the counter-cryptozoology argument that any colony of breeding animals will inevitably leave dung, nests and carcasses and so be spotted a mile off. The lack of either for an allegedly land-based animal really does not bode well (sea creatures are somewhat exempt from this).

I am still, however, inspired by the story. Pterosaurs are devil-ish looking creatures - a nightmare mix of spidery talons, teeth and huge eyes. And they can fucking fly. I like the theory that the ones we "see" today, along with other cryptids (as it-may-or-may-not-exist animals are known) are some kind of psychic projection of our race memory. They are the result of a group hallucination stemming from our most primal fear that our children (and our roast dinners) are going to be snatched by a foul, bug-eyed airborne monstrosity.


A sculpture of pterosaur on the facade of London's Natural History Museum.

One of the beasts as sculpted by Waterhouse Hawkins for the Great Exhibition of 1852. They made things to last in those days and used concrete for the statues. They new reside in Crystal Palace Park in South London.

Today pterosaurs look more like the image below than above.
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