Thursday, March 01, 2007

Alleged sightings of flying reptiles cause residents to reconsider history
All hail the thunderbird!

One hundred million years ago, New Mexico lay nameless and borderless and partially submerged beneath sprawling, shallow seas.

Dinosaurs of every size and appetite wandered to the edge of such seas, in search of plants, water or smaller creatures further down the food chain. The air above them hung hot and dense, sagging with humidity, and pterosaurs flapped and glided against it.

Pterosaurs - or pterodactyls, as they're often called - once filled our Western skies, flying on leathery, membranous wings that sometimes stretched more than 40 feet from tip to tip. Using multifingered hands and pointed mouths full of teeth, pterosaurs snapped up fish along the muddy banks of prehistoric lakes and oceans. One pterosaur left its footprints along one sea's western shore, time turned its tracks into stone, and Clayton Lake State Park - in the northeast corner of modern-day New Mexico - turned those prints into a tourist attraction.

Bones of another pterosaur in the San Juan Basin in the northwestern part of the state, joined other skeletons from throughout the West to suggest that pterosaurs lived all across what is now New Mexico throughout the age of dinosaurs.

In Lordsburg, old-timers used to gather at the now-defunct Triple J - a coffee shop and tavern - to play pool and trade stories. Many had known even older residents, and some of the stories they passed on dated back to the 19th century. One man, Leroy Jones, used to recall area ranchers in the late 1800s who swore they had seen pterosaurs - reptilian, enormous and amazingly alive - swooping over the desert hills and scrub brush of New Mexico's southwestern Bootheel.

In Maxwell during 1972, not far from the petrified tracks of Clayton Lake State Park, a Los Alamos man named Ronald Monteleone reported glimpsing a living pteranodon, one of the largest known pterosaur varieties. While driving, "Suddenly he saw a 25 to 35-foot pteranodon-like creature fly out a ravine," wrote Phillip O'Donnell in Dinosaurs: Dead or Alive?.

The credibility of this account suffers harshly from a few things. For instance, O'Donnell was a 14-year-old home schooler who used the online moniker "Living Dinosaur Man for Christ" and seemed hellbent on promoting the ideas that mankind and dinosaurs were created together only 6,000 years ago. The credibility of the late-1800s sightings suffer, as well - mainly from a seemingly total lack of documentation - and although many other accounts of living pterosaurs have been reported throughout the country and throughout the world, the possibility of pterosaurs having survived into modern times, in New Mexico or anywhere, is highly unlikely.

Odds are, most witnesses to such anachronistic creatures actually saw large birds such as condors or herons - or that the severity of the often-desert landscapes they were staring across suggested to them a world millions of years younger than the one we live in today, a world perfectly suited for flying reptiles.

The possibility of pterosaurs having survived into modern times may be unlikely, but it isn't unprecedented. In 1839, paleontologists discovered the fossil remains of a prehistoric fish - the coelancanth - and later theorized that this fish, with its stumpy, leg-like fins, was the missing link between animals living in the sea and animals stepping onto land. They studied coelacanths as bygone creatures from another time, as things reduced by millennia to bits of petrified bone, as relics, as remnants of things gone away from this world forever.

They studied them as fossils, right up until 1938 - when a fisherman caught a live one.

Mike Smith is a UNM history major, as well as the author of Towns of the Sandia Mountains, available at the UNM Bookstore. E-mail him with suggestions for future columns at
© Copyright 2007 Daily Lobo

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