Thursday, September 9, 2010

Pterosaurs and Thunderbirds

Today will mark the first time I have featured a guest blogger. I could not have asked for a better one. Alton Higgins is the Chairman of the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy, a college professor of Biology, wildlife biologist, and a noted birder. He is also my good friend.

Alton has been very supportive of this blog and has offered several very helpful suggestions regarding how to make it better. When he told me he had written up a piece on the possibility of living Pterosaurs/Thunderbirds I knew it would be a great fit for this blog. Alton's piece is below:

Pterosaurs and Thunderbirds

A recent article at related startling claims from explorers searching for pterosaurs in Papua New Guinea. Young Earth Creationists have long espoused the theory that pterosaurs live in that region, and expeditions have been repeatedly mounted to document their existence with the notion that such a discovery would serve to discredit evolutionary theory.

The explorers, Jim Blume and David Woetzel, president of “Genesis Park,” have collected eyewitness accounts of living pterosaurs “from frightened natives,” and claim to have seen the creatures themselves. Woetzel even shot video of a flying “pterosaur” in broad daylight. His video accompanies the article.

Unfortunately, the video clearly shows a frigatebird, a large pelagic fish eating bird that obtains most of its food while flying, not a pterosaur. Five species of frigatebird are found throughout the world’s tropical oceans. Frigatebirds typically breed on remote oceanic islands and are consummate aerialists, capable of spending weeks in continuous flight and often ranging far from land.

While this blatantly obvious conclusion regarding the identity of the bird does not, in itself, preclude the possibility that some “frightened natives” have seen living pterosaurs, it does present doubts regarding the reported sightings of Blume and Woetzel. The purpose of this article, however, is to put a Texas twist on the issue of misidentifications, not to delve into the existence of pterosaurs in the South Pacific.

Unusually large mysterious flying creatures have long been reported from the Lone Star State. Just as is the case in Papua New Guinea, these seemingly inexplicable sightings are sometimes ascribed to pterosaur-like creatures. Others are sometimes called Thunderbirds, an evidently generic term applied to what appear to be huge birds that are otherwise rarely seen. A high percentage of these sightings originate in the southern part of Texas along the Mexican border. Author Ken Gerhard chronicles these kinds of sightings in his 2007 book “Big Bird! Modern Sightings of Flying Monsters.” Is it possible that some of these flying monsters are misidentified frigatebirds?

Frigatebirds are stiking creatures. In fact, the frigatebird species most likely to be observed in or near Texas is named the Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens). They have huge wingspans at seven and a half feet, comparable to those of Bald Eagles. By comparison, a frigatebird would seem to dwarf the familiar Red-tailed Hawk and its four-foot wingspread. The frigatebird’s size and unusual appearance would instantly attract attention, especially if it were to be seen in desert or prairie environments, far from its normal haunts in the farthest reaches of the open sea. As unlikely as this may appear at first glance, frigatebirds DO sometimes wander inland.

Mlodinow (1998) summarizes the occasional meanderings of frigatebirds into the American interior. He states that Magnificent Frigatebirds have been reported as far inland as Colorado, more than 700 miles from the nearest saltwater. There are eight frigatebird records for Oklahoma and four from Kansas, one a mere sixty miles from Nebraska. New Mexico has six records.

It should be obvious that, given the above records, frigatebirds also can be seen away from the ocean in Texas. However, even though it is not considered all that unusual to see frigatebirds along the Texas coast or in pelagic regions (Mlodinow characterizes them as uncommon, but not rare, summer visitors), records of the birds more than fifty miles from the coast “are exceedingly scarce.” All these records occurred in the fall and “were related to hurricane or tropical storm activity.”

All in all, the typical Texan would not be expected to see a frigatebird in his or her lifetime and would be even less likely to know what they were seeing. The fact that these impressive birds, with their singular appearance, range rarely and unexpectedly into unfamiliar domains could account for some of the reports from baffled witnesses who mistakenly relate their sightings to extinct and mysterious creatures.

Alton Higgins
4 September 2010

Aym, Terrence. 12 Aug. 2010. Dinosaur Found Alive: Two Species Recorded in Papua New Guinea.

Mlodinow, Steven G. 1998. The Magnificent Frigatebird in Western North America. Field Notes (Now North American Birds) Vol. 52(4): 413-419.

Other Links
Genesis Park

Pterosaur Adventures

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