Friday, August 16, 2013
Why Believe in Living Pterosaurs?
by Jonathan David Whitcomb
I am grateful for the Phantoms-and-Monsters report in the July 16, 2013, post "Pterodactyl-Like Cryptid Witnessed Near the Pine Barrens." Most eyewitnesses of apparent pterosaurs tell nobody about their strange encounters, except maybe one or two close friends or family members.
I'm also grateful to Lon Strickler for allowing me here tp report a few sightings of apparent pterosaurs, but it deserves a brief introduction. This is a strange investigation in a narrow branch of cryptozoology.
Before introducing you to live-pterosaurs (LP) credibility, let me make this plea. Are you one of those few lucky (or unlucky) persons who has seen something like a "pterodactyl" or any large featherless flying creature that was unlike a bat? If something like a winged monster has flown into your life experience, it does not throw your sanity into doubt. It's OK, you're not alone. And do not doubt yourself; believe that the world of life is bigger than what has been portrayed to us in Western culture.
Also feel free to report your sighting to me, Jonathan Whitcomb (Live Pterosaur). I'm probably the only person in the world who has devoted anything close to a full-time effort, during the past nine years, to interviewing eyewitnesses and analyzing and writing about their testimonies. I will respect you and be open to what you tell me.
You can skip ahead to the end ("A Few Recent Sightings") if you're not interested in technical details about credibility and you already know about the 1944 sighting by Duane Hodgkinson.
This post examines four kinds of credibility issues:
4) Extinction Assumption
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time this subject, of the four basic types of credibility, has been explored in any book or web page or scientific paper, at least regarding the concept of eyewitness reports of apparent pterosaurs.
But first I need to introduce myself.
Who is Jonathan Whitcomb?
I was a forensic videographer in the fall of 2003, sometimes videotaping injured persons and interviewing their caregivers. I had a personal interest, at the time, in reports of living dinosaurs and pterosaurs, and I made some inquiries. It was like a hobby at first but it soon grew to a big part of my life.
Paul Nation, of Granbury, Texas, sent me a few home videos from two expeditions on a tropical island in Papua New Guinea. I examined the videotaped interviews of natives who had encountered the "ropen" of Umboi Island, and their credibility amazed me. I came to believe those natives were telling the truth.
I would have been even more amazed if I had known that in one year I myself would be camped out on top of a hill in the middle of Umboi Island, hoping that a giant pterosaur would fly down at night and grab the big dead lizard hanging from a small tree, within videotaping distance of the door of my tent.
But that's another story. We need to see why searches for living pterosaurs do not come from delusions, why there is reason in the apparent madness.
We need to understand the four basic types of LP credibility; But let's begin with a key sighting, Duane Hodgkinson's encounter during World War II.
1944 Sighting in New Guinea
This must be the most famous "pterodactyl" sighting of the past hundred years. I place it on a pedestal as one of the four key sightings in the Southwest Pacific. So much has been written about it that we'll examine only a few details here.
Two Americans soldiers were stationed in Finschhafen, New Guinea, on the mainland of the largest tropical island in the world. At that time in 1944, no Japanese were left in that area, so the two men were granted permission to hike up to a local village to the west.
In a jungle clearing about 100 feet in diameter, they both witnessed something huge take off into the air. Duane Hodgkinson, then a weather observer for the artillery, described the encounter to me six decades later. My cryptozoology associate Garth Guessman also interviewed him.
The creature ran through the grass, with long legs clearly not to be confused with the long tail. Hodgkinson could see that the legs, during the running takeoff, were about three to four feet long. He estimated the tail to be "at least ten or fifteen feet long." He was certain that he had not confused the legs for a tail.
But Hodgkinson was concentrating on the head, especially on the long appendage that was like a horn, held parallel to the long neck of the "pterodactyl."
The wingspan appeared to him to be the same as that of a private airplane. He would later own a Piper Tri-pacer and he considered its wingspan (29 feet) to be very similar to that of the flying creature that he had encountered west of Finschhafen in 1944.
The Four Types of LP Credibility
Hodgkinson's sighting report scores very high on the first two types of credibility, and only those two types relate directly to individual sighting reports. The third and fourth types relate to overall sighting reports and the overall concept of pterosaur extinction or non-extinction.
Credibility Type One: Identity
When somebody reports a flying creature that looked like a pterosaur, did it actually have those characteristics? A common kind of question that a skeptic might ask is "Was it a misidentification? Could it have been a bird or a bat that was seen in unusual conditions?"
Another variation of that credibility type is this: Could it have been a hallucination? We might also ask, "Could it have been a combination of imagined details?"
The report by Hodgkinson indicates the animal was huge and seen at close range, probably less than a hundred feet away. Examining the details makes it obvious: No bird or bat was involved. Here's why:
If a bird was running, during takeoff, much closer to the two soldiers than Hodgkinson thought was the distance, it could have been much smaller, with a wingspan less than 29 feet. But why would a bird (just a few yards away or so) look like a featherless "pterodactyl" with a very long tail and a sharp horn coming out the back of the head? And why would it look like slow wing flaps that blow around the grass in the clearing?
Another critical point needs to be examined. After the creature had flown out of sight, it returned, flying over the clearing in the opposite direction. The two men then watched it again fly out of sight. If they had been startled at the takeoff, and had some kind of delusion of "pterodactyl" features, they would have seen their mistake when it flew back over the clearing; they would have seen that it was really only a bird.
But nothing had changed in its appearance during that brief time when the creature had been out of sight. It was still a huge pterosaur or at least a huge flying creature that had characteristics commonly associated with pterosaurs.
The possibility that two men, at the same time, hallucinated a huge pterosaur---that is too unlikely to deserve attention. And we need to remember that it would have had to have been two hallucinations, for the flying creature returned after being out of sight. Forget about that explanation.
For credibility Type One, the 1944 Finschhafen sighting report is very strong.
Credibility Type Two: Honesty
This is simple. Did the person reporting a living pterosaur lie about the experience? (We need to be careful not to confuse Type Two with a subset of Type Three below.) Some skeptics speculate about the hoax possibility, especially by proclaiming that natives are making up stories for gullible Americans. But that speculation is weak.
None of those skeptics, as far as I know, have ever gone on any expedition to Papua New Guinea (or anywhere else) to test their idea by interviewing natives themselves. On the other hand, my associates and I have interviewed natives while videotaping them, giving investigators opportunities to judge eyewitness honesty themselves.
Why do I judge the 1944 Hodgkinson sighting report as very high in honesty credibility? I don't usually give away many details about my methods of judging honesty, for I don't want to make it easy for a future hoaxer to use that to fool me. But with Hodgkinson, I can disclose something that is no secret anyway.
Duane Hodgkinson has been a flight instructor for many years, near Livingston, Montana. He needs to be credible to clients. Holding onto an old story about his view of a giant pterodactyl could hurt his credibility, if it were a made up story. He holds firm to his account because it was a true experience. Those friends who have dismissed it with "what were you drinking?"---those friends have not caused Hodgkinson to abandon his account. (By the way, this World War II veteran has never been a drinker.)
For those who would like to judge this for themselves, watch the Youtube video "ropen-pterodactyl American eyewitness," which has been viewed over 300,000 times.
Let's now leave the first two types of credibility, the individual-report focuses, and look at numbers three and four, the overall-credibility issues.
Credibility Type Three: Correlation
Many factors can be compared in sighting reports, too many to examine them all right now. Consider a subset we can call "hoax potential," not to be confused with Type Two above. We now look at the possibility that has been brought up by some skeptics, or at least implied: that sightings in general are made up of a significant number of hoaxes.
Let's call this one "Subtype 3-A." Could a sighting be a hoax? A precise answer may not be possible, for a clever hoaxer might squeeze one fabricated report into a compilation of sighting accounts, however much we try to keep the data clean from hoaxes.
This is not about honesty in an individual sighting, however (like Type Two); it's about all the sightings (Subtype 3-A) and how some could be hoaxes.
Is there a significant number of hoaxes in the overall reports? Analysis of the overall data answers that question: No, there is not.
At the end of 2012, I finished compiling data from 128 sighting reports. Those 128 I chose because they appeared to me to be more likely than not from actual encounters with modern pterosaurs.
How does that compilation relate to hoax possibilities? Several things demonstrate that few, if any, hoaxes could be included in those 128 reports.
Consider a simple example: eyewitness belief that the creature seen was featherless. The data shows that 21% of the eyewitnesses were positive about the absence of feathers, and 25% thought there were no feathers but admitted some doubt.
That 21% to 25% difference demonstrates that no significant number of hoaxes could be included in those 128 reports. If many hoaxes were involved, those reporting the lies would not have admitted any doubt about the lack of feathers, and the overall percentages would have been very different, with the reported beliefs about lack of feathers.
Wingspan estimates also show that few, if any, hoaxes were involved, but let's move on to the fourth general type.
Credibility Type Four: Extinction Assumption
In contrast to the first three types, this one usually involves doubting the validity of sighting reports. It's used by skeptics as if it were a trump card. I use the phrase "universal-extinction axiom," regarding pterosaurs and dinosaurs.
This could be covered well in a book, but we need to be brief. It means that the extinction of all species of dinosaurs and pterosaurs has been an idea so deeply entrenched in Western society that it is now mostly taken for granted as part of "science."
But a survey of American biology professors, a few months ago, resulted in a surprising outcome. Although few professors replied to the questionnaire, the average percentage of belief was 1.5% regarding the possibility of a modern living pterosaur. And those were professors who apparently had no previous knowledge that anybody was investigating the possibility of extant pterosaurs.
Of course 1.5% is a very small estimate of the probability that a pterosaur species is alive; but it's clearly more than zero.
In addition, when a typical paleontologist is pressed for an answer to a question about the possibility of an extant pterosaur species, the response is usually that such a thing is possible but unlikely.
So the extinction of all species of pterosaurs is not actually a scientific fact. It is just a popular idea. That means this Type Four cannot be used as if it were a trump card against other types of credibility.
A Few Recent Sightings
Let's look at excerpts from a few recent sighting reports, and I'll include a brief general evaluation of each one, regarding the first two credibility types.
On March 23, 2013, a man was driving on Interstate-540, on the north side of Raleigh, North Carolina, at about sunset, when something strange flew right in front of his car. With a wingspan of about 5-6 feet, a long tail that ended in a "spade," a crest on its head, something like claws in mid-wing, and a complete lack of feathers, it gave him a shock. I rate this as high in both Type One and Type Two credibility.
In northern Minnesota, three eyewitnesses saw a creature "gliding across the highway." This could have been as recently as early 2011; the report I received did not give a date or exact location. The flying creature had "reddish brown leather type skin with no feathers, bat like wings, a crest on it's head, a mouth full of small teeth in the back and larger in the front . . ." It also had long legs and a long tail: both legs and tail, no confusion apparent between them. The tail had "a spade shaped thing at the end of it." I rate this as high in Type One and average in Type Two credibility.
On November 14, 2012, Professor Steven Watters saw a "huge rhamphorhynchus like flying entity" gliding past his house, at 11:45 a.m., in Crestview, Florida. He estimated the wingspan at 8-12 feet and he told me that it had "a tail as long as its torso with a large bulb" at the end of the tail: "very diamond shaped, no feathers . . ."
He checked out photos of Frigate birds and was sure that was not what he had observed. The "rhamphorhynchus" had a neck and Professor Watters observed that Frigate birds appear to have not neck at all. I rate this as high in both Type One and Type Two.
Many other reports could be given but let's leave them for a future post.
NOTE: I want to sincerely thank Jonathan Whitcomb for submitting this excellent post. I have been extremely interested in his research since he started researching the 'ropen' in New Guinea. Jonathan has written three amazing books:
Live Pterosaurs in America: Not extinct, flying creatures of cryptozoology that some call pterodactyls or flying dinosaurs or prehistoric birds
Searching for Ropens: Living Pterosaurs in Papua New Guinea
Live Pterosaurs in Australia and in Papua New Guinea
NOTE: Jonathan's website Live Pterosaur is a first-class reference. You may want to read about the Destination Truth 'Ropen' episode from 2007 that was evaluated by Jonathan Whitcomb...Lon