Don’t Get Strung Along by the “Ropen” Myth

Feedloader (Clickability)

Growing up, I often heard that there might still be dinosaurs living in some distant, tropical jungle. In television documentaries and some of the less-reputable "science" books carried by my elementary school library, rumors of long-lost prehistoric creatures abounded, and I could not help but hope that someday conclusive evidence of living dinosaurs would be found.

Over time I lost my enthusiasm for the various explorers claiming to be on the trail of sauropods and other prehistoric creatures. Like many self-appointed authorities on the Unknown, the chief advocates of living dinosaurs turned out to be hucksters, overly-credulous wildlife enthusiasts, or young-earth creationists intent on somehow disproving evolution by finding creatures thought to have been long extinct. They were not reputable naturalists who had seen something strange and wondered, "what could that be?" but were instead showmen who generated a moderate amount of fame by standing up to orthodox science—the oft-cited foe of such people—in the search for the incredible.

Sadly, some people still get duped by the fantastic claims espoused by "professional monster hunters." Last week on, reporter Terrence Aym posted an article proclaiming: "Dinosaur Found Alive: Two Species Recorded in Papua New Guinea." (The piece is a shortened version of an article Aym posted to Citing eyewitness accounts collected by "serious researchers" Jim Blume and David Woetzel, Aym reports that at least two types of pterosaur—flying archosaurs which were not dinosaurs—still soar over Papua New Guinea, and he even provides some video to prove it.

The trouble is that the video provides a pretty clear look at what is definitely a frigatebird, probably a female great frigatebird (Fregata minor) based upon the dark feathers and white patch on the chest. That the animal is a bird is obvious during the first few seconds of the home movie—the frigatebird is acting just like this one, filmed off the Galapagos Islands—and the embedded video comment that a crowd of locals have gathered to watch the strange animal is undercut by the actual video. Only one person can be made out standing near a few parked cars, and plenty of people stop to watch birds. There is no indication that whoever was looking at the bird was doing so because they thought it was unusual or something other than a bird.

Then there is the problem of Aym's sources. Both Blume and Woetzel are creationist explorers who have tried to promote the existence of living pterosaurs and dinosaurs. In fact, Woetzel has gone as far to propose these living pterosaurs as the "fiery flying serpent" of Isaiah 30:6 in the Bible, claiming that the pterosaurs also give off a kind of bioluminescent glow they use to catch fish. For Woetzel, such anecdotes are enough to prove that humans and pterosaurs have always coexisted, and in a Creation Research Society Quarterly paper he asserts that "evolutionists have appropriated the natural fascination with the terrible reptiles to propound their belief in naturalistic origins and billions of years of evolution.  By God’s grace we should strive to tear down this high place and point people instead to the great Creator."

Fortunately, other writers have been more skeptical than Aym of "living pterosaur" claims. Paleontologist Darren Naish has debunked many of the famous ones at Tetrapod Zoology, and Glen Kuban has also posted a thorough summary of creationist claims about pterosaurs. Relating to Aym's article in particular, Dean Traylor has posted his own response on Helium, and GrrlScientist has rightfully criticized the report on her Nature Network blog.

There is no reason to believe the animal in the video Aym posted is anything other is a frigatebird, and neither is there any solid evidence to give the claims of Blume and Woetzel any credibility. The last of the pterosaurs disappeared in the mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and there is no indication that any of them survived past the close of the Cretaceous. Had they survived, they would have left us some fossil clues. Even coelacanths—fleshy-finned fish said to be "living fossils" when they were discovered in the 20th century for the lack of a fossil record between the Cretaceous and the present day—are now represented by fossils which postdate the end of the Mesozoic. If pterosaurs were still living we would expect to find some kind of fossil evidence that they persisted much longer than previously thought.

But, just for a moment or two, let's entertain the thought of living pterosaurs. What would they look like, and would they truly be a threat to evolutionary theory?

While Blume, Woetzel and others describe living pterosaurs as relatively small animals with long tails, this type of pterosaur disappeared at the end of the Jurassic. Towards the end of the Cretaceous, many pterosaurs were much larger and lacked the tapering tails said to be one of the hallmarks of living species. These facts significantly widen the gap between the last known appearance of the small, long-tailed pterosaurs and the present day, but why should living pterosaurs look just like their predecessors? Pterosaurs were a diverse group of flying archosaurs which evolved into a variety of forms, and if some pterosaurs survived for another 65 million years or more we would expect them to look quite different from their fossil relatives. Creationists will no doubt resist this point—if you start out believing that the earth is only 6,000 years old, fantastic claims are much more conveniently made—but given what we have come to learn about pterosaurs we should have no expectation that a hypothetical, living member of this group would look anything like its prehistoric relatives.

Furthermore, even if a long-tailed pterosaur were found it would do nothing to undercut the science of evolution. Rates of evolution vary across different lineages through time—sometimes change is relatively minor, and other times it occurs at a rapid pace—and so a living, long-tailed pterosaur would be a form that persisted for millions of years with little modification (much like living crocodiles are very similar in form to crocodiles that evolved 95 million years ago). Charles Darwin himself recognized this in On the Origin of Species: some lineages are adapted into disparate forms very rapidly, while others undergo little change and preserve ancient forms over long stretches of time. A pterosaur fossil found in Cambrian strata (or rock hundreds of millions of years older than even the first land-dwelling vertebrates) would give paleontologists pause, but a living pterosaur would hold no real threat.

Naturally, some might be disappointed that there is no evidence of living pterosaurs, but there is another way to look at the video Aym shared. The frigatebird in the video is a living, flying dinosaur—a modified descendant of small, feathered theropod dinosaurs which lived many millions of years ago. To me, that fact is even more wonderful than the discovery of any long-lost species.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.