Pterosaurs in Texas

The Quetzalcoatlus had a wingspan of over 40 feet. It lived during the late Cretaceous. (Copyright Lee Krystek 2003)

While driving his cruiser through the wee hours one morning 1976, Policeman Arturo Padilla of San Benito, Texas, spotted something unusual in his headlights. It looked like a big bird. A really big bird. A few minutes later Padillaís fellow officer, Homer Galvan, reported it also. It appeared as a black silhouette that glided through the air. According to Galvan, it never even flapped its wings.

A short time later Alverico Guajardo, a resident of Brownsville, Texas, reported he'd heard a thumping noise outside his mobile home at about nine-thirty at night. When he looked out the door, he saw a monstrous bird standing in his yard. "It's like a bird, but it's not a bird," he said. "That animal is not from this world."

The sighting of the strange bird didnít end with the reports from Guajardo and the two policemen. Two sisters told of seeing a "big black bird" with "a face like a bat" near a pond outside of Brownsville.

Reports of this creature continued to multiply in the early months of 1976 until finally a radio station offered a reward for the creature's capture. Soon after, a television station broadcast a picture of an alleged bird track measuring some twelve inches in length. As the media hype increased, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department took action, fearing that hunters might mistake a large, rare and protected bird (like a whooping crane) for this mysterious creature. They made an announcement saying, "All birds are protected by state or federal law."

At about this same time several Texas schoolteachers told of seeing the strange flying creature, with a wingspan of at least 12 feet across, while they were driving to work. One of them checked the school library and found a name for the animal: A pterosaur.

The Pterosaurs

Pterosaurs were an order of reptiles that lived and went extinct with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. They were the first true flying animals that had vertebrae. Their wings were composed of a membrane of skin that stretched from the side of the body, along the arm, out to the tip of an enormously-elongated fourth finger, and then back to the ankle. Like a bat, they had no feathers.

The Pteranodon, a member of the pterosaur family, may have skimmed along the coastal waters catching fish. It had a wingspan as big as 23 feet and a head almost seven feet long. (Copyright Lee Krystek 2003)

Computer analysis of pterosaur fossils suggest that they were slow gliders, capable of making very tight airborne turns. A large pteranodon, with a wingspan of 30 feet, could turn in mid-flight in a circle only 34 feet in diameter.

So what were extinct pterosaurs doing in Texas in the 20th century?

Strangely enough, Texas hasnít been the only place plagued by aerial, reptilian predators from the past. In 1923 a writer by the name of Frank Melland who worked in what was then northern Rhodesia, in Africa, told of a strange flying creature in his book In Witchbound Africa. According to Melland, the natives called this animal a kongamato. Its wing span was four to seven feet across and it had a long beak full of teeth. The wings were featherless and resembled those of a bat. Melland sent for some books he had at his home and showed a picture of a pterodactyl (a type of pterosaur) to the tribesmen. Melland reported that "every native present immediately and unhesitatingly picked it out and identified it as a kongamato."

Melland wasnít the only one to hear of this beast. In 1942 Col. R. S. Pitman wrote about reports heíd heard about a flying creature living in the same region as Mellandís kongamato:

Öthe most amazing feature of this mystery beast is its suggested identity with a creature bat-and-birdlike in form on a gigantic scale strangely reminiscent of the prehistoric pterodactyl."

Nobody has yet to find a living pterosaur either in Africa or Texas, however. Is it possible that what people were seeing was a very big, but conventional bird? The largest American bird is the California condor. With an impressive wingspan of over ten feet they would be large enough to explain some of the Texas reports. California condors, however, are a rare and endangered species and it seems unlikely that one would have wandered so far from its home on the west coast without being spotted and recognized by bird watchers for what it really was.

Bird of Legend

There is another bird, more legend than fact, that might fit the Texas reports: The thunderbird.

Thunderbirds are a part of Native American myth. These huge, supernatural creatures were supposed to have caused thunder by flapping their wings and lightning by blinking their eyes. Though such powers are obviously in the realm of legend, there are occasional reports in certain sections of North America of sightings of a giant birds that seem to fit the thunderbird description.

The forested region along the Allegheny Plateau of Pennsylvania seems to get more than its share of thunderbird reports. In 1969 the wife of a local sheriff spotted a huge bird sitting in the middle of a creek near their cabin. When it took off and unfurled its wings she estimated it was about 75 feet across. A more recent thunderbird account, a little further east, comes from the New Jersey coastline where in 1970 several people saw a flying creature with a "wingspread almost like an airplane."

Texas Quetzalcoatlus

Could a thunderbird have a wingspan as large as an airplane? The largest known flying animal of all time was a pterosaur called the Quetzalcoatlus. It had a wingspan as big as a small plane (over 40 feet) and weighed about 190 pounds. Unlike many of the other pterosaurs, Quetzalcoatlus lived inland and probably fed on the ground like modern storks by hunting small vertebrates on land or in small streams.

The Quetzalcoatlus, interestingly enough, brings us back to Texas. The first Quetzalcoatlus fossils were discovered in Big Bend National Park, Texas, in 1972, just four years before the first sightings of the Texas "Big Bird." Is there a connection?

Have there been pterosaurs hiding in Texas for the last 65 million years? Or could it be the publicity surrounding the discovery of Quetzalcoatlus four years before triggered the misidentification of large birds like the sandhill crane, brown pelican or the vulture? We may never know, because after the two-month flap of sightings in 1976, reports of the big birds dwindled. The pterosaurs, if they ever existed, seem to have gone back into hiding.

Perhaps not for forever, though. Six years later, on September 14, 1982, James Thompson was driving on a road near Los Fresnos, Texas, when he saw something large glide low over the highway just ahead of him. He stopped and stared at the animal that seemed to fly without moving its wings. Thompson reported the creature had a black or gray color. Its body appeared to be covered with a rough-textured skin. The wings, which were five or six feet across, had no feathers.

When he got home, Thompson looked up the animal in a book. The book said it was a pterosaur.

Book: "In Search of Prehistoric Survivors"

Next Stop on Dinosaur Safari

A Partial Bibliography

The Ultimate Dinosaurs, Edited by Katie Orchard, Parragon Books, 2000.

Unexplained!, by Jerome Clark, Visable Ink Press, 1999.

Copyright Lee Krystek 2003. All Rights Reserved.


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