Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Goertzen's Case for the Historical Scaphognathus

In the first half of this post, I wrote about the shaky relationship between cryptozoological research and science, as well as the way creationism worms its way into the equation. I also introduced John Goertzen's paper The Rhamphorhynchoid Pterosaur Scaphognathus crassirostris: A "Living Fossil" Until the 17th Century. Today, we'll dig into it and look at the evidence presented.

First, a summary of what we know about Scaphognathus. A denizen of Late Jurassic Germany, it was a small pterosaur of the family Rhamphorhynchidae. The Pterosaur Database writes,
Three near complete specimens have been preserves [sic] along with some fragmentary remains, almost exclusively from the Solnhofen Limestone of Bavaria. Typically, this species had a skull length close to 12cm and a wingspan of about 90cm. A characteristically broad jaw, relatively short tail and short wings in comparison to other rhamphorhynchoids and a broad sternum.[PDF]
For those allergic to the metric system, the wingspan came to about three feet, making the animal about the size of your average hawk. The head was about four inches long. It's highly likely that Scaphognathus bore a covering of the hair-like structures called pycnofibers, as the closely related Sordes has been found to possess them (and it's likely that all pterosaurs did). Like their cousins the dinosaurs, where pterosaurs were once believed to have been lizard-like creatures, new discoveries and technological advancements have revealed them to be unique creatures not like anything that we share the Earth with today.

Scaphognathus crassirostris Holotype, 1831
The S. crassirostris holotype. From my Flickr set dedicated to the beastie.

I made my best effort to read Goertzen's paper objectively, but this isn't entirely possible. His claim has little prior plausibility, and therefore he has a higher mountain to climb than someone who makes a claim that doesn't contradict centuries of well-supported scientific evidence. The major failing of most cryptozoological claims is that the evidence is weak, relying too heavily on personal accounts. A good story can be intriguing, but this doesn't amount to evidence. Knowing that the writer's goal is to demonstrate the existence of  pterosaurs during human history based on artifacts and ancient writings, a stiff dollop of skepticism is warranted and outright cynicism is understandable. Unfortunately, Goertzen stumbles at the very outset. After a brief description of the two fossils of Scaphognathus, he writes,
Because the S. is the only rhamphorhynchoid pterosaur with a head crest, ancient artifacts enable us to tell what the soft tissue of the head crest looked like and identify ancient S. representations with a high degree of confidence.
Despite putting on a crisp white lab coat labeled "scientist" in the paper's opening, he's just given up all pretense to rational thought. It's irresponsible to imply that the head crest of Scaphognathus has been confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt. It hasn't. As Palaeocritti's page on the pterosaur states, there "is no direct evidence of a crest like the one shown on the illustration below, and this is merely inferred from the presence of a flange of bone above the anterior portion of the rostrum which might have supported a fleshy crest," similarly stated in Buffetaut and Mazin's Evolution and Palaeobiology of Pterosaurs. The Dmitri Bogdanov illustration shared at Palaeocritti is included below for reference.

Illustration by Dmitri Bogdanov, via Wikipedia.

But I'm willing to give Goertzen space and allow that if a line of rhamphorynchoid pterosaurs survived the end-Jurassic extinction, and then the K-Pg extinction, some of them may have evolved a head crest or whatever other bodily adornments folks want to find in the archaeological and historical record. Those pterosaurs may have survived the intervening 65 million years. And over all of that time, by chance they may have avoided preservation in the known fossil record. Their habitat preferences may have changed so they became isolated in areas that aren't likely to lead to fossilization. It's a lot of if's and maybe's to build on, but it's not completely out of the realm of possibility. However, my charity is probably misplaced. Goertzen writes (all emphasis his),
I need to stress that the methodology of Paleocryptozoology is not necessarily to find artifacts that look like modern reconstructions of scientists based on fossils. Indeed, that may be helpful and there may be some accuracy with some of the scientific reconstructions. However, the best method for success is to search for distinct morphological features that are difficult to explain by any other means than that a particular fossil species was observed and accurately described or depicted by its witnesses. An example of a distinct morphological feature is the tail vane of some rhamphorhynchoid pterosaurs. Also, it could be a distinctive skull like that of a Dimorphodon. ...For the S., the distinctive feature is a rhamphorhynchoid pterosaur with a head crest. The S. is the only long-tailed pterosaur presently known from the fossil record with that feature. That will be examined in the present study.
I can clear a wider path for Goertzen, but he's already committed to a pretty narrow one. He sees a crested Scaphognathus in all sorts of odd places, including both written accounts and visual representations on seals, coins, and maps. Beyond a basic description of a reptilian creature with wings and a head crest (with no pycnofibers, it must be noted), the descriptions and drawings vary so widely that only wishful thinking can cobble them into a single, consistent creature. Of course, this is the sort of thing a biblical literalist is adept at.

The Coins and the Egyptian Seal
Goertzen sees crude images of Scaphognathus on a Roman coin, but the  image provided is so low resolution, it's as if he's trying to make the reader work to make out a pterosaurian form in the squiggles and blotches. Luckily, over the years better versions have been made available, such as the one on page 181 of Wayne Sayles' Ancient Coin Collecting IV. The two serpents pulling a chariot sure don't look like Scaphognathus to me. He correctly identifies the driver of the chariot as Triptolemus, a mythological figure. Certainly, this mythological figure might employ steeds with an similar founding in mythology? Or is it more likely that the ancients employed a hawk-sized pterosaur as a draft animal?

On a 1622 German coin, a knight on a horse overpowers a creature that looks like a dragon/ griffin half-breed. Again, it's too large for Scaphognathus. And only a feat of imagination can make it resemble one. Worse yet, two plum chances to make a joke about a pterosaur on a coin sail right by Goertzen. Brother, can you spare a Dimorphodon?

The Egyptian seal he provides doesn't fare much better, and the quality of the image is even worse than the Roman coin. Again, there's the problem of the alleged Scaphognathus engaging in an activity it's probably not suited for. This time, hunting a gazelle. A line drawing is supposed to clear up the matter, but's kind of useless. I personally see a hot dog stand, but my worldview doesn't depend on hot dog stands in ancient Rome, so I'll probably not bother with putting up a website devoted to it.

The Maps
Goertzen provides two 15th century maps which supposedly bear illustrations of Scaphognathus, the 1435 Borgia map and the 1457 Genoese map. Dragons aren't exactly unprecedented in ancient maps; and the Wikipedia article linked here includes an inscription that Goertzen omits. Above a dragon in Asia, a Latin inscription states, "Here there are even men who have large four-foot horns, and there are even serpents so large that they could eat an ox whole." Goertzen seems to take ancient historians and other writers at their word, believing their accounts to be reliable. It's not the sturdiest foundation on which to base what claims to be a rigorous academic essay.

The Sketches
The last form of visual record provided are two sketches of dragons. Goertzen relays the story of the dragon of St. Radegonde, "The Grand Goule," which the second of them is supposed to depict. "This had been encountered previously by those who worked in the monastery. and that monster devoured the monks who, too imprudently, approached its privacy." Now, Scaphognathus is large enough to devour monks. There were certainly large pterosaurs. But Scaphognathus wasn't one of them.

The Personal Accounts
In addition to the visual evidence of ancient artists and artisans, Goertzen provides written accounts he claims describe Scaphognathus clearly. Just as the images above didn't do the trick, I'm afraid that I don't find any of this convincing. Remember how valuable anecdotes are as scientific evidence? They aren't, unless paired with something better. Humans are pretty good at exaggeration and mistakes of perception. Here are what his various naturalists, historians, and other observers saw:
  • "...winged serpents, small in size, and various in form, guard the trees that bear frankincense, a great number around each tree. These are the same serpents that invade Egypt..."
  • "...a small serpent, as long as a palm branch, and thick like a small finger. It has a small piece of skin, like a crest, on its head and, in the middle of the back, two scales placed on one side and the other which serve as wings in order to advance more quickly"
  • "...a cruel kind of serpent, not past four feet long and as thick as a man's arm out of whose sides grow wings much like unto gristles"
  • "...Serpents with wings... they had two legs and small wings so that they could scarce fly. The head was little and like to the head of a serpent. Their color was bright and they were without hair or feathers..."
  • "...winged and flying serpents that can be found who are venomous, who snort, and are savage and kill with pain worse than fire..."
  • "...serpents who are very degenerate and, just as it becomes evening, they fly rising over the land, and rest on the end of their tail, rapidly going into motion."
Even if all of the accounts were consistent - which, despite Goertzen's insistence, they are not - it's more parsimonious to guess that an extant animal explains the sightings of "flying reptiles," and folk legend accounts for their more fearsome aspects. Intriguing stories, but without some sort of physical remains, we just don't know what these animals, with their diverse behaviors, actually were.

Putting it to rest
As I wrote yesterday, I would flip my lid if a living pterosaur was found to exist, but I have to be acutely skeptical of any hypothesis that a large terrestrial vertebrate known only from fossils has survived into the modern day. The scientific evidence of Earth's deep history is overwhelming, and science has established itself as the most reliable way we have to understand the world around us. While people who don't like what science reveals about the world paint it as nothing more than an alternate religion, science does not rely upon faith. What opponents of science brand as faith is actually trust: trust earned by scientists working within a refined system of rational inquiry, strengthened by competition between researchers with differing hypotheses, manifest in technology. What Goertzen's up to here... it's not science.

As someone who does not believe that faith is a path to truth, I find it difficult to don the shoes of a young-earther. If these dragons are supposed to have been living, breathing animals, are we to assume that every mythological creature the thinking ape has invented once walked the Earth, swam the seas, or terrorized the skies? What kind of soul-sucking enterprise is that? Excuse the hyperbole, but in my opinion it's a form of self-hatred, denying humanity its imaginative capacity. Ancient artists and writers are reduced to mere chroniclers of their surroundings, bankrupt of the creativity of invention. As the excellent Bible critic Robert M. Price writes, literalism is a "hollow mockery of the old fundamentalist preaching of the gospel of grace." The sort of literalism Goertzen employs when looking at his "evidence" is, to me, a hollow mockery of mythology. And lest you should be mistaken about whether he's a literalist, read the conclusion of the paper, in which he states that "Pterosaurs were very likely preserved on Noah's ark and survived in Egypt and Europe (and probably elsewhere) until recent times."

It's telling that the title of Goertzen's essay includes the phrase "until the 17th Century," roughly when the age of global exploration and the Enlightenment began. Could it be that the true cause of these cryptids' demise was the clearer vision of the natural world given to us by science? In that case, the last place for the living pterosaur to hide is in the murky fringes of our imaginations.

Massive thanks to Michael Barton, blogger at The Dispersal of Darwin, for helping me access a copy of Adrienne Mayor's Paleocryptozoology: A Call for Collaboration, allowing me to write this.


  1. Always love reading about the insane intersection of cryptozoology and creationism. It is really only a bizarre twist of cultural history that some people think that the survival of prehistoric species to modern times invalidates mainstream biological science which in turn is central to their belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the son of the all-powerful creator of the universe. What? Could there be anything more incongruous? And of course, as you point out, most people involved in mainstream biology would lose their shit with joy if a pterosaur showed up in some isolated jungle rather than try and cover it up because it would mean *GASP!* the creationists are right! They always seem to have an uneasy relationship with other potential pterosaur proxies though, I mean, where do they stand on the coelocanth? I imagine they think that it probably discredits the modern synthesis but they're a little cagey because the evilutionists seem to love the damn fish so much. - cambrianexplode

    (Some further reading for the ultimate creationist-pterosaur Poe experience:

  2. What is interesting is that this flange of bone, a feature I once illustrated but discarded when I looked more closely at the material and actually read descriptions from people who examined it first hand, doesn't actually exist. It's an artifact of the slab breakage that makes the feature seem like a broken crest; moreover, what may actually be bone is displaced from the underside of the holotype illustrated up there. This feature only exists on the type specimen, and only on the edge of a broken slab. The skull is also somewhat rotated due to distortion, so that the midline is actually visible on the dorsal surface -- instead of a side-only view, you're seeing a 3/4s view, and there is no crest.

  3. Thanks for that clarifying detail about that "crest-supporting" flange, Jaime. When I read that one detail, it was enough to give up on this "research," but I wanted to look at his historical sources for kicks.

  4. @Rohan - I want one good reason that "living fossils" are anything but a false dilemma. Just one, that's all! That cartoon of the pterosaurs with Adam & Eve is the PERFECT illustration of Poe.

  5. Returning to the crest, there's very good ones known for Austriadactylus and Raeticodactylus as well as Pterorhynchus, and of course the various Darwinopterus-like taxa have crests and are not pterodactyloids. Oh, and based on various bits f evidence, as noted, it's quite possible many pterosaurs had soft crests that are otherwise not preserved. All of this is clearly in the literature and dates back at least 10 years. Much of it is not *that* recent.

  6. Thanks Dave - those crested non-pterodactyloids are noted. I may just return to this to talk about these. Ludodactylus sprang to mind, as well. Then I found that things were spiralling out of control when I tried to propose other pterosaurs that may fit the bill for his hypothesis, and decided to focus solely on his specific Scaphognathus claim, as an example of shoddy creationist scholarship.

  7. I should clarify that I realize that Ludodactylus is not a rhamphornchyoid - but with the size, crest, and tail, it's a reasonable one to plug in to some of these accounts.

  8. Well, surviving pterosaurs in Papua New Guinea may be possible - practically any damn' thing suriving in Papua New Guinea may be possible - and we wouldn't know whether it was in the intervening fossil record or not because nobody afaik has looked at the fossil record in Papua New Guinea. But none of Goertzen's identifications seems at all likely - the Asian "serpent" which can eat an ox whole is probably a large crocodile, for example. Only the small lizard with a crest on its head sounds even remotely like (a probably badly reconstructed) Scaphognathus, and that not much - the description of the wings sounds more like one of those little gliding lizards with the rib-extensions.

    In any case if anybody *did* see a surviving pterosaur it would surely be described as a bat with a beak, or a bird with fur, not as any kind of serpent. A less lizardy-looking thing it would be hard to find. And, as you say, it has nothing to do with creationism anyway.

    But I know why it is that creationists think that the existence of "living fossils" disproves evolution. It's because they imagine that when a new species arises from a pre-existing one *all* members of the older species turn into the new one - they don't realise that the older species generally stays around and only a small pocket of it gets changed, just as fox terriers didn't cease to exist just because a small group of fox terriers got shrunk into Jack Russels.

    If anyone's interested I have an essay explaining clearly how we *know* evolution hapeens because we can watch it happening right now, at .

  9. I don't get how creationists and von Daniken-types don't accept that ancient people had the ability to imagine mythical creatures. So, even if ancient coins had carvings that looked like something that resembles something that might possibly be a dragon, or a serpent or a pterosaur, then it just had to be based on something that they had actually seen or experienced.

    It makes me laugh when people use the description of "behemoth" and "leviathan" to claim that dinosaurs were described in the bible as living creatures.

    @whitehound - I think that the reason is that if they can demonstrate that if scientists are wrong about dinosuars being extinct 65 million years ago, then they are wrong about just about everything that contradicts a young earth.


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