“Pteranodon” in a 19th Century Photograph

By the living-pterosaur expert Jonathan David Whitcomb

On the title page of the recently published nonfiction book Modern Pterosaurs, the species or type is not specified:

On January 14, 2017, Clifford Paiva and I spoke by phone and agreed that a photograph we had been studying had a genuine image of a real animal. We did not insist that this must have been a species of Pteranodon killed during the American Civil War. [although we did suspect that the photo shows a pterosaur related to that type. We suspected it was some kind of short-tailed Pterodactyloid, even if not exactly a Pteranodon.]

This is repeated in my Youtube video “Introduction to the old photograph Ptp,” that I do not say that the animal in the photo was one of the species of Pteranodon that is known by present-day scientists. Paiva and I have never insisted that this large flying creature must have been precisely like what is presently known (by paleontologists, from fossils) about Pteranodons. I continue to use that word because many persons seem to think of that kind of pterosaur when they see the photo. Decide for yourself if it resembles that type:

not a fossil but a recently deceased modern pterosaur

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Long article attacking living-pterosaur investigations

I’ll not comment here on many of the problems that I have found in the online page “Living Pterosaurs,” by Glen Kuban. Since he has mentioned my name 280 times in that article, however, I need to respond to at least a little of it. The total page length is over 30,000 words, as best as I can tell, longer than some books and a hundred times longer than many blog posts. The whole thing is orchestrated to try to convince people that anything seeming to support the possibility of modern living pterosaurs is wrong or unconvincing or based upon bias in favor of that possibility. Let’s take a closer look.

The origin of Kuban’s writings on the Civil War pterodactyl photograph

For years, Glen Kuban’s anti-modern-pterosaurs online page (“Living Pterosaurs”) displayed a small image of the photo now called “Ptp.” (We’ll call his page “GKLP.”) It referred to that photo as being widely acknowledged as a hoax for a Fox television show. I told him of his mistake in the following email I sent to him on March 27, 2017:

I noticed that Figure-4 on “Living Pterodactyls?” shows the photograph that has recently been given the label “Ptp” on a number of sites and in an upcoming book. That is the wrong photograph in Figure-4, however. The correct photo is the one created by Haxan Films, and it was made for one or more episodes of “Freakylinks” (TV show from 2000-2001). Some persons have confused the two photos, so you’re not alone.
[from Jonathan Whitcomb]

Within hours, we communicated in several more emails. After he came to realize his mistake, one of his emails (that same day) included this:

What evidence do you have that it is not a similar hoax, possible [sic] made by the same team?

That statement by itself gives little evidence that Mr. Kuban had any major problem with belief perseverance. But when taken in context with what he soon wrote, in a revised version of GKLP, it appears he had indeed fallen into that faulty type of reasoning.

Confirmation bias and belief perseverance with Jonathan Whitcomb

I seem to have had both of those problems in the past, although I have recovered from them, and they differ greatly from what skeptics would assume. My problems with confirmation bias and belief perseverance may be similar to what skeptics of living-pterosaur investigations have had, yet I’ve recovered from them, which is more than can be said of those skeptics who continue to attack the credibility of the Ptp photograph or who emphasize anything that might appear to make it look like a hoax.

It may have been as long ago as 1968 when I first saw this photograph of an apparent “pterodactyl.” Perhaps it was in a book in the Pasadena Public Library (California) or at the California State University of Long Beach library. Wherever it was, and whenever it was, I was a young man at the time, and I remember certain impressions I had when I looked at that strange image.

Civil War era photograph of a pterosaur

Head of the apparent Pteranodon

The head gave me a creepy feeling, for it looked real to me. The wings, however, seemed like the ends of two canoes or like the two halves of one canoe. And why did the apparent wings change appearance so drastically before they joined the body?

Like Glen Kuban (whom I would not know about for many years), I had assumed that anything like a genuine photo of a modern pterosaur would cause scientists to quickly recognize it for what it was and acknowledge that it was genuine. After all, movies in the mid-twentieth century emphasized the idea that practically all scientists were practically always perfectly objective. Only many years later would I come to better understand the real world of human cultural bias, in particular Western indoctrination into the belief that all species of dinosaurs and pterosaurs had become extinct many millions of years ago.

At some time in my younger years, I had come to a tentative conclusion that the photo was probably a hoax: a model of a pterosaur in which Civil War soldiers had put together one or more canoes to make the wings.

As best as I can recall, it was in more recent years that I noticed something strange about the shoe of that one soldier, the shoe on the animal’s beak. I took that strangeness to be a confirmation that something was wrong with the photo and that my original idea that it was a hoax was a valid conclusion. How greatly I would be shown to be mistaken! I would learn that I had fallen into a confirmation bias.

I also may have had a problem similar to what psychologists call belief perseverance, although with me it seems to have been less severe of a problem.

The true nature of those pterosaur wings

Early in 2017, a canoe expert sent me an email and told me that those wings (in the photo that would soon be labeled “Ptp”) were definitely not from any dugout canoe. In fact, he believed that they were not from any kind of canoe, and he was the canoe expert. That’s when I began a deeper investigation into all aspects of the photograph.

I communicated with the physicist Clifford Paiva, who had been examining the photo for years. He had no doubt that it had a genuine image of a modern pterosaur, although he had not taken a stand on the idea that no tampering had ever taken place with the photo.

For several weeks, early in 2017, we independently examined the photo that I then gave the label “Ptp” (for pterosaur photo). We independently came to an uneasy feeling that those two wings might be digitally manipulated inversions, one being a duplicate of the other, for they had very similar patterns. We each did our own examinations on that.

Although my friend Cliff has made more discoveries than I have in Ptp, this was one of those exceptions where I found something before he did. I found, on magnifying parts of the wings, that the similarities vanished in the smaller details.

left wing and right wing compared by Jonathan Whitcomb

One wing image I inverted horizontally to check for a possible Photoshop hoax

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The following is taken from my nonfiction book Modern Pterosaurs:

Comparing the two apparent wings with each other—that reveals a general symmetry consistent with a natural biological resemblance. Closer examination of the pixels reveals natural differences, consistent with real wings.

I often see similarities before magnification, giving me the impression that it could have been a Photoshop job: inverting one wing to make the other. But every time I magnify the wings those similarities mostly dissolve. The similarities, however, are too many to ignore.

They’re definitely not from any simplistic Photoshop inversion of one wing to make the other, but why does it have many larger similarities? I found an answer, and it shoots down both digital image manipulation and the physical-modeling conjecture: Possible biological structures are seen in both wings, and they can correspond, at least in general, to particular places on the wings. [from page 107 of the nonfiction Modern Pterosaurs]

I was aware that some old photographs have been tampered with, including those taken during the 19th century. But a few counterfeits do not prove that nothing is real. Each twenty-dollar bill needs to be examined individually, and in the right way, to see if it is genuine. I knew that the wings in Ptp needed to be examined with an open mind.

The positive side of a potential mild case (apparently) of belief perseverance

Within a few weeks of my first communications with Paiva, regarding Ptp, I magnified the two wings digitally, having reversed one of the wings horizontally for better comparisons. I found evidence for apparent biological structures in the wings, and with magnification I was able to prove that one wing was not from a digital copy of the other.

During that time, I was nervous about what I would find, but Paiva and I knew that a deep analysis needed to be done, regardless of the consequences. I was prepared to come forward and admit that somebody had messed with the image digitally, probably within the past 25 years or so, if I found that one wing-image was made from the other.

During those few hours of examination, I did not feel nearly so confident in Ptp, yet after my analysis I was relieved to discover that no Photoshop hoax was involved in taking a shortcut to create fake wings. How much easier it would have been for a hoaxer to make one realistic wing and them make a modified copy of it (for the other wing)! That never happened. Yet another benefit that Paiva and I received from that work was this: Our nervousness and desire to get to the truth demonstrated that we were not being carried away with out own bias. We really wanted to know the truth about Ptp.

Although I may not have experienced a full-blown case of belief perseverance, my feelings at that time allowed me to get a feeling for what that could be like. If Paiva and I had fallen into that faulty type of reasoning, we would have just ignored the hoax possibility. We would have thought something like this: “If nobody says anything about it, why worry? Let’s just pretend there is no problem.” Thank God we decided to take the chance of being embarrassed, choosing to be objective regardless of the risk.

Folded wings of a pterosaur

I was informed by Clifford Paiva of the significance of those strange looking wings, why they have such a marked difference between the outer part and the part closer to the body. Like other pterosaurs, ones known from fossils, those wings are folded.

The folding of the wings makes it look strange

Evidence of authenticity: folded wings of a pterosaur

The outer part of each wing is flipped over, so the ends of the wings are reversed: What appears to be a lighter colored top surface of each wing is actually what would be the bottom surfaces during flight. This is indeed evidence that the image is genuine.

So even though a first glance at this photograph can give one the impression that it must be fake because it looks so strange, in reality it fits with what paleontologists know about some species of pterosaurs.

Strange appearance of the shoe on the beak

Years ago, I felt uncomfortable with how that shoe looked on the beak of that animal. Something about it looked strange.

close up of the shoe on the beak and the apparent tree branch used as a prop

Arrow points to what is probably a prop, consistent with a pre-1870 technique

Notice the what the arrow points to in the above magnification of part of Ptp. It appears to be a prop that was used to keep the beak and the man’s shoe stable during photography. This technique was used before about the year 1870, before snap-shot photography was developed. But also notice the shoe on the beak.

It’s the shadow under the shoe that is unusual. If this photo was a modern snapshot, the man could have held his shoe in a more nature way on that beak, placing it squarely on the beak (causing no shadow under the shoe). But older photography needed more care, to avoid having any person or object move during the many seconds needed to take a photo.

That explains the shadow under the shoe. The man held his shoe lightly on that beak, with only the left edge of the sole touching the beak. That would make it less likely that his foot would slip, which would have caused both shoe and beak to move, spoiling the photo.

Kuban uses the word “cheesy” to describe the overall appearance of the animal in Ptp. I see that as an unscientific description. It requires looking deeper to discover relevant truth. I could use the word “cheesy” for the appearance of that shoe on the beak, or I could at one time. Now I know why that part of the photo bothered me when I was younger, and that knowledge has made a big difference in how I now see that photograph.

[This post is copyright 2017 Jonathan Whitcomb]

Confirmation bias and belief perseverance with Glen Kuban

I cannot read his mind, nor do I know many details about what he has done with his examinations of the writings of me and my associates. Yet I have seen evidences that do suggest that Mr. Kuban has indeed fallen into those two types of bias.

I mentioned that he may have fallen into belief perseverance when he sent me an email that included, “What evidence do you have that it is not a similar hoax, [possibly] made by the same [television production company]?” If that was the end of it, we would not have enough to go on. But there would be a lot more.

Within a few days, Kuban began updating GKLP. The first change, to my knowledge, included a correction: He displayed with the Haxan Films Freakylinks TV show hoax photo and the Ptp photo, near each other. But I saw a big addition, many long paragraphs that were orchestrated to create doubt about Ptp.

As best as I can tell, there never was a time, early in 2017, between when Kuban thought that Ptp was a hoax created for a television show and when he believed it was another hoax. In other words, he never considered the possibility that it may have a genuine image of a real modern pterosaur. Even after I pointed out that it was not a TV show hoax, he kept believing it was a hoax, going directly from thinking it was a television-show hoax photo to thinking it was some other hoax.

Since that time, he has more than doubled the size of his “Living Pterosaurs” page. As of early May 23, 2017, it has an estimated 32,231 words. All I can see on his enormous online publication are a variety of apparent reasons why people should not believe in the possibility that any species of pterosaur is still living.

It seems he has purchased his own copy of my book (Modern Pterosaurs) on Amazon, but he does not acknowledge my analysis that reveals, or at least suggests, those six men were actually standing at the same distance from the camera as they seem to be standing (according to apparent perspective). In other words, the man standing in front of the apparent Pteranodon (with his shoe on that beak) was actually closer to the camera than the distances between each other man and the camera. I see nothing about that in his negative comment on Amazon and nothing about that on GKLP.

It seems to me that whenever Kuban sees any possibility for any sighting to be anything other than a modern pterosaur then he concludes that it must not have been that kind of animal. The extraordinary variety of reasons that he gives for non-pterosaur interpretations is so large that it must surely impress some of his readers, calling out to them that the author of this online publication is operating under extreme bias. I wonder how many persons begin reading GKLP disbelieving in modern pterosaurs but stop reading it when they start believing in them. They’re welcome to read what I’ve written.

Another piece of evidence that Kuban has not been thinking objectively

Even as recently as May 23, 2017, he displayed a photo of a heron with a caption that included, “Heron in flight, resembling a Pteranodon-like pterosaur.” In fact, he also said, at least earlier this year, that the Ptp photograph has what looks like a Pteranodon.

But further down the page he gives two lists of detailed differences between what people declare is true about fossils of Pteranodons and what is seen in Ptp. But when we read further, it appears obvious that he published those two lists as if they were evidence that the animal was not a pterosaur or as if investigators are wrong. And he says all that after he himself uses the word “Pteranodon” for the animal seen in Ptp.

And what if scientists have not yet discovered all the fossils there are to discover? What’s wrong with paleontologists discovering, some day, a fossil of a new kind of Pteranodon, one that more closely resembles the animal shown in Ptp? We need to be objective.

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Confirmation bias and the pterosaur photograph

The scientist Clifford Paiva and I have not declared that the animal seen in Ptp must be some species of Pteranodon that is now known from pterosaur fossils. [Yet the skeptic who wrote the long unscientifically critical online article attacking investigations into reports of apparent living pterosaurs—that critic himself uses the word “Pteranodon” for the animal shown in the photograph Ptp.]

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The Pteranodon photograph and religion

Skeptical remarks about the soldiers have been answered and those careless criticisms have been exposed in the new nonfiction book Modern Pterosaurs. . . .

Religion is related to the “Pteranodon” photograph that is now called “Ptp,” but those skeptical comments from critics who assume extreme bias in all Christian supporters of living-pterosaur investigations—those critical comments are incorrect. Paiva and I have looked carefully at this photo, with an open mind about various possibilities of hoaxing. Ptp has survived the close scrutiny extremely well.

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Scott Norman and the Pteranodon photo

This coming July will be the ten-year anniversary of Scott Norman’s sighting of an apparent nocturnal Pteranodon in California. Scott passed away, half a year later, from natural causes, yet the large sizes of apparent extant pterosaurs, reported by some eyewitnesses in North America, may be connected to some of the more mysterious missing-persons cases that have never been solved.

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The Civil War Pteranodon photo

Forget about what some skeptics have said about those soldiers: declarations regarding Photoshop and digital hoaxing. To make a realistic photograph of an extant pterosaur, no hoaxer would paste images of Civil War soldiers onto a background of trees. That’s a lot of work and and total waste of time. We already have many such soldiers with tree backgrounds. The real challenge would be to paste a realistic pterosaur onto an old photograph.

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Modern Pterosaurs

I’m not a professor of paleontology. To be brief, I was a forensic videographer in 2003, when I began investigating these eyewitness accounts of “prehistoric” flying creatures or “dragons.” I recognized, while viewing some amateur video footage, the credibility of natives who were interviewed on a tropical island in the southwest Pacific. Since 2003, I have spent well over 10,000 hours researching, interviewing, exploring, and writing—all within this narrow field of cryptozoology.

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Video about the pterodactyl photo

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