Monday, January 18, 2010

Pterodactyls and the London Illustrated News

When I was ten or eleven, like most boys of that age, even before Jurassic Park, I had a bit of a thing for dinosaurs. Going through an old draw I found the following which I have kept from that time. I don't know where I came across the original reference but I remember having the help of the children's librarian in my local public library to fill in the request form to get hold of this article from the LIN. So dumbfounded where the librarians who received the request, possibly at the British Library itself, that when the photocopy of the article came back it had attached a limerick they had composed. I wish I had the limerick still. Clearly, it began "There once was a pterodactyl from..." but I really don't remember the rest. The story itself I find just as fascinating today as I did at the age of ten.

"VERY LIKE A WHALE - A discovery of great scientific importance has just been made at Culmont (Haute Marne). Some men employed in cutting a tunnel which is to unite St. Dizier and Nancy railways, had just thrown down an enormous block of stone by means of gunpowder, and were in the act of breaking it to pieces, when from a cavity in it they suddenly saw emerge a living being of monstrous form. This creature, which belongs to the class of animals hitherto considered extinct, had a very long neck, and a mouth filled with sharp teeth. It stands on four long legs, which are united together by two membranes, doubtless intended to support the animal in the air, and are armed with four claws terminated by long and crooked talons. Its general form resembles that of a bat, differing only in its size, which is that of a large goose. Its membranous wings, when spread out, measure from tip to tip, 3 metres 22 centimetres (nearly 10 feet 7 inches). Its colour is a livid black: its skin is naked, thick and oily; its intestines only contained a colourless liquid like clear water. On reaching the light this monster gave some signs of life, by shaking its wings, but soon after expired, uttering a hoarse cry. The strange creature, to which may be given the name of living fossil, brought to Gray, where a naturalist, well versed in the study of paleontology, immediately recognised it as belonging to the genus Pterodactylus anas, many fossil remains of which have been found among the strata which geologists have designated by the name lias. The rock in which this monster was discovered belongs precisely to that formation, the deposit of which is so old that geologists date it more than a million years back. The cavity in which the animal was lodged forms an exact hollow mould of its body, which indicates that it was completely enveloped with the sedimentary deposit."

---- The London Illustrated News, Feb 9th 1856

Was this the oldest living creature ever to have existed? Perhaps not but a great starting point for a story of bizarre and macabre happenings: almost Lovecraftian...
For more see this well written article on the veracity of the story - particularly the last three or four paragraphs...

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