Those damned ropens again

This thing has sat around for the best part of a year, and I never got through the images that I had indeed so it’s had a bit of a rewrite and is being shoved out into the harsh light of day. It might not work to well therefore, but should be OK.

I am big football fan and being stuck in China I often have to rely on reports for details of games rather than watching the game or even the highlights. Recently (err, last season now) I read two different reports of the same goal as scored by my team Tottenham. In one, the final pass was delivered by Luca Modric, in the second the pass was by Tom Huddlestone. Why is this interesting? Well the reporters were professional football journalists, who I assume have a lot of practice at following the on field drama and then writing it up. For football at least, the journalists sit together in the press box, so if someone does miss an event they have colleagues (and of course TV replays) to help them get it right. Frankly I am scared that someone could confuse Tom with Luca. For a start the names of the shirts should be a clue, as are the different numbers (6 for the former and 14 for the latter could hardly be confused). If you look up their stats you will see Huddlestone is a massive 6’3” (that’s 1.9m) and 94kg, whereas little Luca Modric is just 5’6” (1.73m) and only 65kg. It might be forgivable if Smith in the 18 shirt played with Smythe in 10, but this seems a stretch. Those who watch much English football will have already seen the kicker coming, for those who don’t, this is what they look like:

Tottenham's giant Tom Huddlestone.

Tottenham's little Luca Modric

Yep, someone got these two mixed up. Oops. (Photos from the Spurs website).

OK, so it might be a typo (of sorts), where he mixed the goal up with another later one in the report, or he missed the event entirely and made it up or guessed, or whatever. But the short of it is that this is an event which, while it happened quickly, was there to be observed at close quarters in perfect conditions, by a professional, with TV replays and he still confused two players who are about as different as they could be without having had different coloured shirts on. So what are ropens and why is this relevant?

Since I rather suspect my readership overlap with Tetrapod Zoology is about 99% I won’t bother saying much about cryptozoology in this introduction beyond the fact that is the search for undiscovered animals and consists of two main factions. There are the real scientists searching for real animals (like the ivory billed woodpecker that recently drew much attention) and less scientifically minded let’s say, who think that dinosaurs are just waiting to be found in an African lake somewhere. Broad strokes, but largely correct in my (admittedly limited) experience.

I have a very casual interest in both sides of this since finding new animals is always a good thing (the science side) and it can be at least interesting to try and work out what is going through the mind of someone on the other side. Mostly in my experience very little as there is far, far, far too much credibility and far, far, far too little basic biological knowledge to be able to put two and two together and not come up with ‘Dinosaur!!!’. Of course when things stray into more of my personal ‘fiefdom’ of pterosaurs it gets a bit more interesting for me (briefly), and I have actually done some minimal reading on the various websites (one definite downside of the internet is the ability for people who would never normally have found each other to get together and reinforce their own ignorance through mutual appreciation) and other odd sources on the possibility of living pterosaurs.

Perhaps unsurprising the evidence is deeply unconvincing at best and ludicrously (and perhaps even willfully) distorted and overstated at worst (there is a wonderful photo online of a ‘pterosaur skull’ that is actually an ostrich pelvis). I have pointed out a few of the more obvious errors in the past more or less in passing, and with a semi-fun, semi-serious post on how to catch a pterosaur, but this is my first real effort at debunking at least a couple of the more common problems with the ‘evidence’. While of course we all know they actually come from Eastern European volcanoes , alleged living pterosaurs are reported from North and South America and Africa but towering over them all is the ‘Ropen’ of the Indonesian island chain.

Anyone even passingly familiar with pterosaurs might well have come across the term given how often it turns up (frighteningly, there are some 20, 000 more pages on Google for ‘ropen’ than for ‘pterosaur’!). The real drive comes from a US lawyer (and, surprise, surprise a rabid creationist) who had amassed an enormous catalogue of alleged evidence for the existence of living pterosaurs in New Guinea which consists entirely of incredibly dubious semi-nocturnal sightings of flying creatures. I actually have a copy of his book on the subject (courtesy, or indeed otherwise, of a colleague [who incidentally refused to take it back when I tried to return it]) and one day I might even try a review, though I have never made it past two or three pages without being reduced to teeth-grinding rage at the mixture of ignorance and arrogance (and this coming from me) smeared across every line. You have NO idea how bad this thing is.

Anyway, back to the actual point I want to make in the article, which actually come down to a bit of basic wildlife spotting and thus hopefully of interest to people beyond poking holes in the idea of living pterosaurs and poking fun at the people too ignorant to even realise their mistakes. Oh yeah, and that point is that identifying flying animals is really hard.

Judging stuff for size and speed while high in the sky is hard, at that is the most basic thing to do, let alone actually identify it accurately. It’s hard to get a sense of scale with no frame of reference, it can be moving fast and will probably be backlit by the sun (which might also be in your eyes) and moving away from you, and it’s probably not very close either. Even if you are an expert, you can be easily fooled since the few bits of scale you might be able to use to help can be deceptive (like the size of other birds, the height of the clouds, the height of the trees etc. are all very hard to judge) and something you have not seen before can catch you out. How do you judge it if you have no frame of reference? Bird watchers look for the GISS (General Impression of Size and Shape) to try and help their identifications, but size can be incredibly hard to determine, and shapes are not always that clear.

So, let’s turn to pterosaurs properly. Let’s assume that the average person who sees some flying thing he can’t identify immediately is no wildlife expert, has not seen tons of local birds, bats and other fliers (let alone exotics), has not considered the difficulties of making rapid identifications, and is certainly not aware of the inevitable human faculty for gross overestimation of sizes. Even if he is (as is often the case in the ropen annals) a local tribesman, there is no guarantee he is familiar with even half the birds in the local area (and some birds look very strange in flight and most un-bird-like), and certainly even they can make big mistakes as much as the next man. Finally, and very significantly there is the issue of expectation, for the tribesmen and the ropen hunters alike, they *expect* to see these animals because they *know* they exist. How often do you pick a face out in the crowd without even looking because for a second (which is all it takes) you are *sure* it’s a friend of yours or your brother or whoever, even though you know they are on holiday on the other side of the world at that moment. A second glance confirms we were wrong, but you don’t always get a second glance. Humans pick out patterns and shapes instinctively and ones that look close to what we are after will be forced to fit the model we are familiar with, or actively looking for. Combine that with human memory and you can probably see where I am coming from – any police officer will tell you that there are few things as unreliable as an eye witness (just look at the whole Huddlestone / Modric mess in perfect conditions with an expert to hand and easily identifiable people).

Here should have been a bunch of pterosaurs images and birds in various poses and at different angles all in silhouette to show how similar they can look and how complex and unusual the shapes can be. Sorry, you’ll have to make do without, but a quick search through various photos of odd birds at odd angles (like stork and pelicans) will give you some idea.

Right, so put it all together and I would like to think the answer is pretty clear. Given how few people know what a pterosaur looks like (what it *actually* looked like, not what they *think* it looks like which is a huge difference as we have seen before), few people know what many birds look like, incredibly far from perfect conditions for the average sighting, lack of experience, no sense of scale and classic human perception, interpretation, distortion and the fallibility of memory, just how likely is it that that fast moving blur was a pterosaur? Well, you do not need to send out a letter to 221b Baker Street to get my answer. But just in case you missed the point, really pretty damned unlikely, and *that* is before we start taking into account little things like the fact that the buggers are supposed to have been extinct for 65 million years, (and more like 125 for the rhamphorhyncoids that ropens are supposed to represent). Not looking good is it?

Still, if you should see one, take a photo eh and let me know. You already have instructions for catching them.

9 Responses to “Those damned ropens again”

  1. 1 Tom 30/04/2010 at 9:56 am

    Your certainly right about how difficult it is to judge the size of something in the air.
    I once witnessed two eagles circling a herd of sheep, and to my eyes, it looked absolutely like these birds were big enough to pick up one of the sheep, they looked absolutely massive. But still, I am sure that they were nothing more than regular wedge tailed eagles. Big for sure, but nothing like they appeared to be.

  2. 2 Allen Hazen 01/05/2010 at 12:39 pm

    You’re preaching to the converted on this one! I once witnessed (in broad daylight, from perhaps 10 or 15 meters distance) a street crime being perpetrated, and went to the police station to report: while I was there the (I’m reasonably confident correct) suspect was brought in and I had a chance to compare him to my description. What astonished me was a very particular detail, which I had apparently imagined! My description, which I had given the police with complete confidence, included the details that the suspect was wearing a collared shirt with buttons down the front: when brought in, he was wearing a T-shirt. … I had at least gotten the shirt color right: green. Ironically a color I am very bad at spotting (I have partial red/green color blindness).

    • 3 David Hone 01/05/2010 at 5:22 pm

      Well I suspect I’m preaching to the converted on 90% of what I write on here to be honest! But yes, it’s nice to hear firsthand accounts of such things. Thanks. The difficulty of course is getting people to realise that they do this and that while they may be 10000% coinfident in what they saw, they might still be very wrong.

  3. 4 Grant Harding 02/05/2010 at 3:18 am

    I’ve seen a terrific video on YouTube of a “pterosaur like creature” in the South Seas. Trouble is, it’s clearly a frigate bird.

    The great thing is, the video’s comments require moderation, so if you say it’s a frigate bird, your comment will never show up. All the people claiming it’s a dragon or a pterosaur and that therefore evolution is bunk, however…

    • 5 David Hone 02/05/2010 at 11:43 am

      Yeah, I’ve mailed them several times myself. There are even videos down the right hand side linked to it showing it clearly,. Not to mention, you know, it looking absolutely noting like a pterosaur and it being filmed at a holiday resort where it’s just possible that a scientist may have been there before, or photos might have reached the rest of the world by now. Willful ignorance.

  4. 6 Alan 03/05/2010 at 3:01 am

    The other confusion species that can be mentioned is the giant Pteropus fruit bats. Given that the largest species, P.vampyrus, has a wingspan of 2m and often flies in daylight, tourists at least could be seriously disturbed…

    • 7 David Hone 03/05/2010 at 7:50 am

      I’m often suspicious that bats could serious be mistaken for pterosaurs, but then you see the number of times that even common birds are mistaken for pterosaurs and much of my skepticism dries up. If you don’t actually know what a pigeon looks like (and there are people out there who don’t) then perhaps you should not be jumping to conclusions about identifying other taxa….

  1. 1 Updates on « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 29/10/2010 at 5:21 pm
  2. 2 Pterosaurs alive! « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 20/05/2011 at 11:38 am
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