Pterodactyl Hoax in The Illustrated London News

On March 7, 2012, in Uncategorized, by Jonathan Whitcomb

Not many newspaper hoaxes survive for many generations. The French railway-tunnel pterodactyl of 1856 is finally getting its obituary, albeit The Illustrated London News has no such obituary. Not that France is a fairy-tale country or that railway tunnels are figments of the imagination or that all nineteenth-century newspaper articles are always filled with lies; but a pterosaur that survives for ages embedded in rock and then survives a blasting explosion that knocks it out of that rock . . . well, that pterosaur is fictional. [Correction: it may have been reported as a discovery while workers were digging by hand, not from any blasting excavation.]

Not that it’s impossible for a flying creature to find its way into a railway tunnel and then vacate the premises after a blasting explosion; but the original newspaper article included, if my source is correct, something about the pterodactyl’s image being imprinted into the rock formation, thereby removing all doubt about where that creature had lived for millions of years (I’m joking).

I know that blasting explosions can cause clouds of dust, but the original story is said to have included a strange fragment on the demise of that pterodactyl: Immediately after expiring, its body turned into dust. Taken in context with the behavior of the creature right before its death—It fluttered its wings and made a croaking noise—turning into dust from extreme age . . . well, it makes the story extremely unbelievable.

Taken in context with other hoaxes in popular newspapers of the nineteenth century, this article in The Illustrated London News gives us no serious cause for believing in the “tunnel pterodactyl” of 1856. If that were not enough, there seems to be no source for the story, nobody who can verify anything about any pterosaur coming out of any tunnel in France.

Having blasted that old pterodactyl fiction, however, I recommend we keep an open mind to the truth when an eyewitness account shows evidence of credibility, just as we close a case when the falsehood of a story is shown by evidences of a hoax. I once played a joke with my wife, startling her with a realistic toy snake; but that joke did not make all snakes extinct (although my own existence could have become threatened).

I am sorry for the many Christians who may have been mislead by that hoax in The Illustrated London News, but we can learn from our mistakes and be more careful in reading old newspaper accounts of strange events.

The Illustrated London News Hoax

I have read that the original newspaper article included something about the creature’s image being found imprinted in the rock formation. I see several bits of evidence that point to a hoax, each one valid in itself. With no original source available, we can safely assume that this story is a hoax.

Pterosaur Hoax or Not?

I found that for those who could see the presence or absence of a tail (night sightings are often insufficient), 84% reported a tail that was long. If hoaxers played a major part, they would have described Pterodactyloids more than Rhamphorhynchoids, so the overwhelming preponderance of long-tails discredits any hoax hypothesis.

Why a Hoax Fails

Regarding hoax potential, perhaps the most obvious refutation of a combination of practical jokes is this: American hoaxers would most likely emphasize very large wingspan, to avoid any possibility of suggestions of misidentification of a large bird. But the data shows many estimates within the range of medium-to-large bird wingspans.

Hoax Potential – Pterosaur Wingspan

If some hoaxers gave “estimates” based on standard beliefs about long-tailed pterosaurs, and some hoaxers gave “estimates” based on standard beliefs about giant pterosaurs, the graph would have shown two peaks, with a deep valley in the top graph around “d,” (“e” and “f” in the lower graph), far different from the actual data collected.

cover of nonfiction cryptozoology book "Live Pterosaurs in America"

Third edition of Live Pterosaurs in America (nonfiction/cryptozoology)

From an Amazon review of the second edition of this book:

This is an updated review of the book and I am changing my rating to 5 stars. This book has been on my shelf for almost a year now. I pick it up every now and then and a part of me becomes more impressed by the book every time. . . .  I highly recommend this.

From a review of the third edition:

Mr. Whitcomb does a thorough job questioning indoctrination and the close-mindedness of the Western world. Reading so many eye-witness reports of people who have seen living pterosaurs in America was mind-opening, to say the least. . . . The passion that Whitcomb and the pterosaur witnesses feel about these investigations make this book a great read and keep the pages turning. If you are prepared to question the indoctrination society has imposed on you since childhood, you are ready for Live Pterosaurs in America.

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