Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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Friday 1 March 2019


Did a living pterodactyl emerge from a blasted-apart hollow boulder in 19th-Century France? (© Dr Karl Shuker)

It can be all too easy to forget sometimes that just because in over 40 years of researching and writing about all manner of animal anomalies I have encountered one or other tall story countless times, there are many younger enthusiasts out there who are discovering it for the very first time and are naturally very excited by it, not being aware of its full history and denouement.

I was reminded of this recently when I received an email from a youthful cryptozoology fan who had just read what he considered to be an awesome 19th-Century report announcing the discovery of an allegedly long-entombed but still-living pterodactyl in France. I first learned about this (in)famous incident of entombment or immolation more than four decades ago, at the beginning of my own career in cryptozoological research, when Fortean Times recalled it in the form of a delightful comic-strip presentation drawn by FT's inestimable artist-in-residence, the wonderful Hunt Emerson.  So yes, there was a time in my life when I had not previously encountered this case either. Bearing that in mind, therefore, I've decided that it merits a retelling after all, and so, for my youthful correspondent and other first-timers, here it is.

According to an Illustrated London News report for 9 February 1856, a pterodactyl had supposedly emerged, weak but nonetheless alive, from out of a hollow boulder blasted apart during the then-recent excavation of a new railway tunnel at Culmont, in France. As soon as it took its first breath of air, however, it promptly expired. Although it has been repeated ad infinitum ever since in books, articles, and websites, this startling ILN report is rarely if ever reproduced directly in its original typeset form, so I am duly presenting it herewith, complete with its decidedly bizarre, mystifying title. (If anyone can explain to me why in this report's title the pterodactyl was likened to a whale, I'd be extremely grateful. Is it a now-obscure 19th-Century idiom that actually had connotations very different from its primary, literal meaning? I have absolutely no idea.)

The complete entombed-pterodactyl report as it originally appeared on p. 166 of the Illustrated London News for 9 February 1856 (public domain)

Here, therefore, was surely a true (albeit brief) prehistoric survivor – not merely a modern-day descendant of an ancient line, but a bona fide Mesozoic monster that had somehow survived in suspended animation for over 64 million years! Moreover, when its body was examined by an anonymous expert, he was able to identify its species very precisely – Pterodactylus anas. Yet, amazingly, nothing more was ever heard of this zoologically-priceless specimen – but for good reason.

In reality, of course, there is no such species as Pterodactylus anas, and there was no such specimen either – but none of this should come as any surprise to the linguistically-minded, for whom all of the clues for deciphering the true nature of this tall tale are readily available. After all, 'anas' is Latin for 'duck', which in French (bearing in mind that the pterodactyl was supposedly found in France) is 'canard' – a word with a very different meaning in English. Namely, indicating an unfounded, deceiving story with no truth in it!

If nothing else, therefore, this whimsical case certainly confirms that 'fake news' is not a new phenomenon!

A word of advice: never be tempted to release a pterodactyl from a boulder – you know it makes sense! (© Richard Svensson)


  1. Re the article title I think there is a scene in Shakespeare's Hamlet in which Hamlet and Polonius are picked out animal shapes in the clouds and one is described as "very like a whale." I assume the headline writer is referencing this though I'm not sure why.

    1. Thanks very much for this. That does makes sense, inasmuch as the animals being picked out by Hamlet and Polonius weren't real animals, just make-believe ones composed only of clouds, so the person who entitled the pterodactyl article in ILN was subtly inferring the same thing, i.e. that the pterodactyl (and in turn the entire story) wasn't real, just made up. All the best, Karl.

    2. Mental Floss covered this just a few weeks ago. "Very like a whale" is an "old-timey way of saying "nonsense": http://mentalfloss.com/article/64162/12-old-timey-ways-saying-nonsense.

    3. Thanks very much for this, Howard. I've just checked it out via the link you provided, and here is the full info given there:

      "12. Very like a whale

      Another English expression lifted from the works of Shakespeare, "very like a whale" can be used as a sarcastic reply to someone who has said something silly or implausible. It comes from a scene in the third act of Hamlet, in which Hamlet is absent-mindedly discussing the appearance of a passing cloud with Polonius. After first deciding that it looks “almost in [the] shape of a camel,” Hamlet changes his mind to “a weasel” and then to “a whale,” to which Polonius wearily replies, “very like a whale.”"

      So now we know! Another mini-mystery solved.

    4. What's very interesting (and suspicious) is that the newspaper article about the infamous "living megalodon" sighting reported by David Stead in 1918 has the same title.

    5. That is certainly very interesting! However, in this particular instance it is even more ambiguous, inasmuch as the size of the alleged megalodon was reportedly so great that if indeed estimated correctly it must really have been "very like a whale". All very intriguing.

  2. Always one of my favorite stories. I am a bit disappointed now. Excellent as always Dr. Shuker!

  3. In the course of my own furious research into the Thunderbird photo, I've encountered people who recall seeing the infamous picture on page 45 of Reader's Digest's "Mysteries of the Unexplained" book. Know what's actually on page 45? This very story of the pterodactyl in the boulder! (No photo.) So it seems this tale has become slightly entangled with the Thunderbird.