Bookmark and Share

Despised in the West and revered in the East, dragons have a long history in human mythology. How did the myth start? No one knows the exact answer, but some myths may have been inspired by living reptiles, and some "dragon" bones probably belonged to animals long extinct — in some cases dinosaurs, in others, fossil mammals. Starting in the early 19th century, scientists began to find a new kind of monster, one that had gone extinct tens of millions of years before the first humans evolved. Because the first fragments found looked lizard-like, paleontologists assumed they had found giant lizards, but more bones revealed animals like nothing on earth today. Did these terrible lizards ever coexist with people? No. Neither did pterosaurs. Dinosaur fossils just don't turn up in the same rock layers as human remains. Although some creationists claim that medieval dragons were really ruling reptiles of the Mesozoic that survived into modern times, this notion enjoys no support from any credible scientist.

Most Recent Additions

Dragon Dec-02-2014
Mummelsee Nov-07-2014
Pterosaurs with modern birds Oct-25-2014
 
Iguanodon

Year: 1853
Scientist: Sir Richard Owen
Artist: Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (engraving of reconstructions)
Originally appeared in: Crystal Palace Park, London
Now appears in: The Reign of the Dinosaurs by Jean-Guy Michard, Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World by Martin J.S. Rudwick and Gideon Mantell and the Discovery of Dinosaurs by Dennis R. Dean
Sir Richard Owen, who originally proposed the term Dinosauria, personally supervised the sculpture of these beasts. When the sculptures were complete, he then dined with 20 dignitaries in the belly of a reconstructed Iguanodon. Gideon Mantell, who discovered and named this dinosaur, had been invited to participate in the reconstruction, but withdrew from the project because he disliked the idea of life-size models, and perhaps disliked Richard Owen even more. (As any eight-year-old can tell you, this Iguanodon reconstruction had some mistakes. The horn on its snout was later determined to be a specialized toe, the animal was later found to be primarily bipedal, and the tail wasn't droopy.)
Larger image available

 
Iguanodon sculpture

Year: 1853
Scientist: Sir Richard Owen
Artist: Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins
Still appears in: Crystal Palace Park, London (photo by Michon Scott)
Hawkins and Owen's reconstructions can still be seen Crystal Palace, easily accessible through London's public transportation system. After more fossil finds led to a better understanding of dinosaur anatomy and locomotion, scientists and members of the public alike came to regard these statues with something less than admiration, and they fell into disrepair, staying shabby through the 20th century. A refurbishment project undertaken between 2002 and 2007 prettied them up, and they were then listed as buildings of architectural/historical interest.
Larger image available

 
Giant lizards and pterosaurs

Year: 1853
Scientist: Sir Richard Owen
Artist: Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (engraving of reconstructions)
Originally appeared in: Crystal Palace Park, London
Now appears in: Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World by Martin J.S. Rudwick
Another offering from the Owen-Hawkins team included this depiction of "giant lizards and pterosauria." Because the earliest dinosaur fossils were fragmentary and vaguely resembled modern lizards, 19th-century paleontologists initially thought of them as big lizards. Yet Hawkins's "lizards" — like the Iguanodon reconstructions — have more of a mammalian pose, standing on four sturdy legs. Owen didn't accept evolution and preferred to show dinosaurs (the dominant life forms of the Mesozoic) resembling the dominant life forms of modern times. That would be mammals.
Larger image available

 
Hylaeosaurus sculpture

Year: 1853
Scientist: Sir Richard Owen
Artist: Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins
Still appears in: Crystal Palace Park, London (photo by Michon Scott)
Besides Iguanodon and Megalosaurus, the Crystal Palace Park sculptures included Hylaeosaurus. Although Richard Owen favored mammalian postures for his dinosaur reconstructions, Hylaeosaurus looked more like a giant lizard — much more so than Iguanodon. Adding to its lizard-like appearance was a row of spikes running down its back. In fact, the spiny back was not in error, although more complete finds since Richard Owen's day show that the spines extended roughly from the hips to the tip of the tail. Hylaeosaurus was actually a type of ankylosaur — a heavily armored tank-like dinosaur bearing little resemblance to modern-day iguanas. At Crystal Palace Park, visitors typically approach Hylaeosaurus from the rear. It's a bit like getting mooned by a giant lizard. This posterior view was a particular favorite of Victorian cartoonists working for Punch, which was perhaps the Victorian equivalent of The Onion. Sir Owen would not have been amused.
Larger image available

 
Pterosaurs

Year: 1853
Scientist: Sir Richard Owen
Artist: Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (engraving of reconstructions)
Originally appeared in: Crystal Palace Park, London
Now appears in: Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World by Martin J.S. Rudwick
This is a close-up view of the pterodactyles in the previous picture. After the Crystal Palace project ground to a halt, due partly to a lack of funds, Hawkins began selling lithographs of his reconstructions. He also started the lecture circuit. One of his favorite themes was the resemblance he saw between pterosaurs and legendary dragons.

 
Pterosaurs

Year: 1853
Scientist: Sir Richard Owen
Artist: Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (engraving of reconstructions)
Originally appeared in: Crystal Palace Park, London
Photographed in: Crystal Palace Park by Alex J. White (some rights reserved)
Pterosaurs lurk among the suite of stony ruling reptiles at Crystal Palace Park, and the pterosaurs look like dragons. In fact there is plenty to admire, or at least understand, in this reconstruction. Paleontologists debated pterosaur posture and locomotion on the ground for many years after Owen and Hawkins produced these sculptures, and the scaly necks reflect the understanding that the animals were indeed reptiles. More recent finds indicate that, although pterosaurs had scales, they were confined to the feet and maybe the legs. The dragon-like necks might owe their existence to artistic license.

 
Diagram for Crystal Palace Park

Year: 1854
Scientist: Sir Richard Owen
Artist: Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (engraving of reconstructions)
Originally appeared in: "Diagram of the Geological Restorations at the Crystal Palace"
Now appears in: Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World by Martin J.S. Rudwick
Waterhouse Hawkins drew this diagram for a lecture he delivered to the Society of Arts in London, and the picture mapped the planned placement of the ancient reptiles in Crystal Palace Park. The animals were arranged in chronological order — oldest to newest shown from right to left — matched with the rock layers in which their fossils had been found: New Red Sandstone (associated with the Triassic), and Lias and Oolite (associated with the Jurassic).

 
Invitation

Year: 1854
Scientist: Sir Richard Owen
Artist: Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins
Now appears in: Darwin's Universe: Evolution from A to Z by Richard Milner
Perhaps the best 1853 New Year's Eve party anywhere was the one inside the belly of an Iguanodon. Before the sculpture was unveiled at Crystal Palace Park, it served as the dining room for the Victorian Era's in-crowd geologists. An accurately reconstructed Iguanodon would offer nowhere near enough room for so many esteemed guests, but wholly accurate models were still a ways off in 1853, and Hawkins's handmade invitations, with time and place details inscribed on an outstretched pterosaur wing, are irresistible even today.

 
Alligator-stanced dinosaurs

Year: 1910
Scientist: Oliver P. Hay
Artist: Mary Mason Mitchell
Originally published in: "On the Manner of Locomotion of the Dinosaurs, Especially Diplodocus, with Remarks on the Origin of the Birds" in Proceedings of the Washington Academy of Sciences
Now appears in: Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org)
Richard Owen, perhaps for theological reasons, insisted upon a mammalian articulation in dinosaur reconstructions but, decades later, Hay argued that dinosaurs had alligator-like stances and drooping abdomens. One might wonder why dragging bellies wouldn't show up in fossil trackways but, in all fairness, the same question could be asked about dragging tails, which remained a standard part of dinosaur depictions throughout much of the 20th century.

 
Wallowing dinosaurs

Year: 1910
Scientist: H.N. Hutchinson
Artist: J. Smit
Originally published in: Extinct Monsters and Creatures of Other Days
Image provided by: Biodiversity Heritage Library (some rights reserved)
These cheerful specimens of Diplodocus carnegii enjoy a summertime dip the same way little kids today would, one of them apparently testing the water as the other looks on. Wallowing in the water wasn't a matter of sauropod recreation so much as necessity, paleontologists thought, believing that the animals needed the water's buoyancy to support their massive bodies. But water not only provides buoyancy, it also exerts pressure, and so much pressure in fact would have been too much for a dinosaur thorax. That discovery didn't occur for decades after this picture was published, and water-dwelling dinosaur persisted throughout much of the 20th century. So did dragging tails.

 
Diplodocus sketch

Year: 1905
Scientist: John Bell Hatcher
Artist: Alice Woodwards
Originally published in: The Weekly Graphic
Now appears at: Independence Day Fossil: Dippy the Star-Spangled Dinosaur (http://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2013/jul/04/independence-day-dippy-star-spangled-dinosaur) (Also discussed in Dippy by Barrett, Parry and Chapman)
Early articulations of Diplodocus portrayed the animal alternately as a lawnmower and a reptilian version of a hippo, frequently wallowing in the water. This early sketch of the dinosaur shows it near what appears to be a mudflat. Later sauropod articulations raised the heads, and even later ones raised the tails after paleontologists realized that few signs of tail dragging appeared in dinosaur tracks. As for sauropods spending most of their time in the water, Diplodocus skulls gave scientists a good reason to think the animals might have done that. Diplodocus nostrils sit so high on the skull they are in between the animal's eyes.

 
Diplodocus cartoon

Year: 1905
Originally published in: The Star
Now appears in: Dippy by Barrett, Parry and Chapman
At the beginning of the 20th century, Andrew Carnegie was dividing his time between the United States and Scotland, and spending his vast fortune on philanthropic projects. He wasted no time acquiring a Diplodocus skeleton for the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. After John Bell Hatcher completed a meticulous study of the animal, Carnegie posted a picture of the skeleton in his study at Skibo Castle in Scotland. When King Edward VII visited in 1902, he reportedly asked that a similar dinosaur be put on display at the natural history branch of the British Museum (now the Natural History Museum, London). Carnegie passed the request back to his people in Pittsburgh, initially making the fairly unrealistic request that somebody go dig up another Diplodocus skeleton. His underlings explained to him that wouldn't be so easily done, but instead offered a faithful cast of the fossil. Carnegie and the King agreed, and the cast was unveiled to the public in 1905. Interestingly, the cast went on display in London two years before the actual fossil went on display in Pittsburgh. That's because casts — while mimicking the exact shape and size of the fossils they're based on — offer two advantages: They're lightweight and they're less fragile. The Carnegie Museum staff took two extra years to figure out how to mount the original fossils, which had turned from bone into very heavy stone. In London, huge crowds turned out to see the skeleton that would be nicknamed Dippy, and cartoonists took advantage of the situation. In this cartoon, published in May 1905, the caption read, "What may happen to the policeman on night duty in the diplodocus department of the Natural History Museum." Sort of the Edwardian version of Night at the Museum. But it was silly to speculate that this dinosaur would come to life and try to munch on the night guard. Dippy was an herbivore.

 
Stegosaurus

Year: 1891
Scientist: O.C. Marsh
Originally published in: "Restoration of Stegosaurus" in American Journal of Science
Now appears in: The Dinosaur Papers edited by Weishampel and White
In 1891, Marsh published reconstructions of Brontosaurus (now known as Apatosaurus), Triceratops, and Stegosaurus — genera that still count among the best-known dinosaurs today. (He would also reprint the reconstructions in book form several years later.) Compared to paleontologists' current understanding of Stegosaurus, the flaws in Marsh's 1891 reconstruction are subtle, such as a dragging tail, and plates lined up in a single row. Today, the general consensus is that the plates were situated in two alternating rows, but even now, paleontologists aren't sure of the plates' function. They might have helped regulate temperature, made Stegosaurus look bigger (and therefore like more trouble to potential predators), or perhaps attracted sweethearts. The 1891 reconstruction apparently did not reflect Marsh's first take on the dinosaur. He initially thought the stegosaur might be a big turtle-like animal with its plates lying flat and overlapping each other to cover its back. Marsh discarded that idea based on better evidence, but the shingle-plate Stegosaurus reconstruction lived on.
Larger image available

 
Stegosaurus

Year: 1914
Scientist: Charles Gilmore
Artist: Frank Bond
Originally published in: Osteology of the armored Dinosauria in the United States National Museum, with special reference to the genus Stegosaurus
Now appears in: Paper Dinosaurs from the Linda Hall Library
Whereas O.C. Marsh overturned his own first interpretation of Stegosaurus — armored with a pavement of flat-lying protective plates — Charles Gilmore stuck with the idea, publishing on it years later. Gilmore's interpretation had an added twist: The spikes that are now understood to grace the dinosaur's tail instead sprouted from the stegosaur's back, in between the plates. Frank Bond's stegosaur looks like a big cactus with four legs and a mouth.

 
Worm-like reptile

Year: 1910
Scientist: H.N. Hutchinson
Originally published in: Extinct Monsters and Creatures of Other Days
Image provided by: Biodiversity Heritage Library (some rights reserved)
This illustration from the early 20th century shows amphibious and reptilian animals from what was known as the New Red Sandstone period. Named for red sandstone beds deposited in the United Kingdom, the time span included the Permian and Triassic Periods, roughly 290 to 205 million years ago. Perhaps the most eye-catching creature in this prehistoric tableau is the Hyperodapedon emerging from the shrubbery on the right. Its tube-like body looks like a scaled-down version of a giant Dune sandworm with almost ineffectual legs attached. More thorough reconstructions have since given the animal a different posture, in which its small tank-like torso is well off the ground. But the animal still looks pretty weird in modern reconstructions, and still sports the curved double fangs protruding from its upper jaw.

 
Worm-like reptile

Year: 1883
Scientist/artist: Jean Rengade
Originally published in: La Création Naturelle et les Êtres Vivants
Now appears in: The Reign of the Dinosaurs by Jean-Guy Michard
This colored engraving shows a heap of ruling reptiles felled by the eruption of poisonous hot springs, although some of the reptiles shown here look more like big crocodiles than dinosaurs. Nineteenth-century geologists named geologic periods based largely on fossils. The disappearance of certain types of fossils (indicative of extinction) and their replacement by different organisms generally marked the end of one geologic period and the beginning of another. The geologist John Phillips named three major geological eras: Palæozoic ("old life" or "The Age of Fishes"), Mesozoic ("middle life" or "The Age of Reptiles") and Cænozoic ("new life" or "The Age of Mammals") in 1841. But even though geologists recognized that Mesozoic reptiles went extinct, the naturalists couldn't be sure why, and proposed multiple explanations.

 
yyy

Year: 1833
Scientist: Gideon Mantell
Artist: George Scharf
Originally appeared as: "Reptiles restored, the remains of which are to be found in a fossil state in Tilgate Forest, Sussex" (painting)
Now appears in: The Dragon Seekers by Christopher McGowan and Gideon Mantell and the Discovery of Dinosaurs by Dennis R. Dean
Gideon Mantell rightly surmised that some strange fossil teeth he examined in the 1820s belonged to an herbivorous reptile. When he saw teeth from an iguana, he wrongly surmised that the ancient reptile was simply a giant version of the modern lizard. At the time of this depiction, Mantell had little reason to think otherwise, but he revised his Iguanodon reconstructions considerably years later, after finding more fossil evidence.

 
Wall chart

Year: c. 1835
Scientist: William Buckland
Artist: George Scharf
Originally appeared as: "The Comparative Sizes of Extinct Animals" (wall chart)
Now appears in: The Earth on Show by Ralph O'Connor
Iguanodon was the clear winner of the size contest in this wall chart used by William Buckland to teach his classes. Buckland adopted the same view as Mantell, who first discovered the Iguanodon tooth. Because the tooth looked like that of an iguana's, but was so much bigger, it wasn't entirely illogical to assume the ancient animal was a sized-up lizard. Early estimates of Iguanodon sized the animal at about 100 feet long. Not until more fossils turned up did the dinosaur get a new shape.
Expanded image available

 
Iguanodons rumbling

Year: 1853
Scientist: John Mill
Originally published in: The Fossil Spirit: A Boy's Dream of Geology
Now appears in: The Earth on Show by Ralph O'Connor
These monstrous Iguanodon specimens are ready to rumble at sunset in the dramatic frontispiece of Mill's book. The animals look a bit more like dragons than prehistoric reptiles, and they both sport the misplaced horns on their snouts. But if you were a boy (or a sensible girl) of the 19th century, you would likely enjoy Mill's book, though it might cost a couple days' worth of your dad's wages. Written for a young audience, the gift book neatly incorporated little outline drawings of fossils and fleshed-out extinct animals. Each chapter featured an initial capital letter made up of fossils and other objects.
Larger image available

 
Iguanodon

Year: 1910
Scientist: H.N. Hutchinson
Artist: J. Smit
Originally published in: Extinct Monsters and Creatures of Other Days
Image provided by: Biodiversity Heritage Library (some rights reserved)
Several decades after paleontologists imagined Iguanodon as a scaled-up lizard, or a dragon-like lizard, or a mammal-like quadruped (at least in posture), the animal got do-over. J. Smit's picture illustrates 19th-century advancements in piecing together the ancient reptile, including placement of the spike on its thumb instead of its snout. But this illustration shows a tripod-like posture — balancing on its hind legs and tail. Research in the century since this picture was published indicates that such a posture might have actually broken the ancient reptile's tail. As for the animal's color, a guess from 1910 is still about as good as a guess from today. Few skin samples from the Mesozoic survive.

 
Ruling reptiles

Year: 1855
Author: William Elfe Tayler
Originally published in: Geology: Its Facts and its Fictions
Now appears in: The Earth on Show by Ralph O'Connor
With titles to his credit such as Ashley Down; or, Living Faith in a Living God and Popery: Its Character and its Crimes, 19th-century writer W. Elfe Tayler was arguably more interested in the future inhabitants of heaven than the past inhabitants of earth. But he wrote about geology, too, namely to argue, "whilst the facts of the science are plain and incontrovertible, the inferences which our most celebrated Geologists have drawn from them, are, on the contrary, of the most questionable character — being not only founded on data altogether uncertain and insufficient, but actually at variance with many of the phenomena of the earth's surface, as described by themselves." In the preface of his so-called exposé of contemporary geologic theories, he vowed to "show their inconsistency both with reason and Scripture." In short, Tayler was a biblical literalist. But like geologists and paleontologists of his day, he still had to entice readers to buy his book, and as Ralph O'Connor argues, Tayler used the same sort of bait the geologists did: pictures of prehistoric beasts. The frontispiece of his book showed smiling marine reptiles and a very lizard-like dinosaur. The spike on its snout suggests it was Iguanodon. More complete fossil finds eventually showed paleontologists that the spike really resided on the dinosaur's thumb.
Larger image available

 
Ruling reptiles

Year: 1911
Author: Edwin Grew
Originally published in: Romance of Modern Geology
Now appears in: "Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle's Contribution to the Popularity of Pterodactyls" by David Martill and Tony Pointon in Geological Society, London, Special Publications
A terrestrial and an avian reptile share space on this book cover, where Grew called pterosaurs "Dragons of the prime." The overall shape of the pterosaur isn't too bad, although its wings appear not quite up to the task keeping the fairly robust body aloft, and the long tail is characteristic of a species that would actually be much smaller. The terrestrial reptile below is presumably a dinosaur, although this one sports a lizard-like form that had largely been overturned by the time this book was published. The hapless animal in the big lizard's mouth looks like a platypus, and that might seem anachronistic in this ruling-reptile scene, but platypus-like fossils do date back to the time of the dinosaurs. The year after this book was published, Arthur Conan Doyle prominently featured pterosaurs in The Lost World, arguably making the flying reptiles far more popular (or infamous) to the general public than they ever had been before.

 
Dragon

Year: 1664-1678
Scientist/artist: Athanasius Kircher
Originally published in: Mundus Subterraneus
Now appears in: Fossils: Evidence of Vanished Worlds by Yvette Gayrard-Valy and Athanasius Kircher's Theatre of the World by Joscelyn Godwin
In his book about the subterranean world, the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher recounted the story of a great dragon slayer who succeeded in killing one of the dangerous beasts near a Swiss village. He also described the living habits of dragons, namely dwelling in underground caves and caverns. (Science historian Paula Findlen described Kircher as "perhaps the last naturalist to believe passionately in the reality of any papal dragon he saw.") This picture closely resembles an earlier illustration produced by a member of the scholarly Italian academy known as the Linceans. Although Western civilization largely abhorred dragons, Eastern cultures took a different view. "Dragon" bones, teeth and horns were used as a panacea by Chinese apothecaries. Dragon parts were believed to cure ailments of the heart and liver, as well as constipation, nightmares and epilepsy. Chinese apothecaries proved invaluable to fossil hunters in later centuries by showing them fossil sites.

 
Dragon

Year: 1651
Scientist/artist: Johannes Faber
Originally published in: Thesaurus
Now appears in: The Eye of the Lynx by David Freedberg
Kircher likely based his dragon depiction on a similar engraving done by Faber, a member of the Lincean (or Lyncean) Academy in Italy. The Linceans set out with the ambitious agenda to be "slaves neither of Aristotle nor any other philosopher, but of noble and free intellect in regard to physical things." Unfortunately, they still needed patrons. The influential Barberini family — with cardinals and Pope Urban VIII among its ranks — was fond of dragons. So while Faber entertained plenty of doubts about the accuracy of this dragon, he had to do what he had to do.
Larger image available

 
Dragon sculture in Klagenfurt

Year: 1590
Scientist/artist: Ulrich Vogelsang
Photographed in: Klagenfurt, Austria by Janos Korom Dr. (some rights reserved)
Discussed in: The First Fossil Hunters by Adrienne Mayor
Sometime around 1335, quarrymen discovered the skull of a Pleistocene woolly rhinoceros in the region of Klagenfurt. The concepts of an ancient earth, ice ages and extinction were all pretty foreign to medieval and Renaissance Europeans, so the odd-looking skull was interpreted as something less real but at the same time more familiar: a dragon. Folklorist Adrienne Mayor points out that, even though it was presented as a mythical beast, Vogelsang's sculpture "is often cited as the earliest known reconstruction of an extinct animal." Vogelsang's dragon was just one of many instances where fossil remains, in this case mammalian remains, were interpreted as dragon bones. But whether fossil bones provided the original inspiration for dragon myths is a tough question to answer. Dragon legends have existed for thousands of years in multiple cultures, and these mythical creatures haven't all looked or acted the same. Animals still living, such as some reptile or amphibian species, or simply the human imagination might have played a bigger role than fossils.

 
Dragon of Marduk

Year: c. 600 BC
Photographed in: Detroit Institute of Arts by Maia C. (some rights reserved)
Discussed in: The Natural History of Unicorns by Chris Lavers
This snake dragon graced Ishtar Gate around the inner city of Babylon, and was associated with the Neo-Babylonian deity Marduk. According to legend, the young and hungry Marduk acquired his pet after volunteering for combat and handily defeating a series of foes. This dainty dragon combines features of multiple animals. A horn (or perhaps two horns in perfect profile) on the head likens it to a unicorn. The creature sports mammalian front legs and avian hind legs with long, sharp claws. Scales run from the head to the apparently prehensile tail. A forked tongue protrudes from the dragon's rippled snout. Whether the dragon of Marduk was remotely inspired by, or intended to represent, an actual animal is hard to say, but Lavers argues that visitors to the intimidating monuments of imperial capitals may very well have taken images like this literally, fueling legends about fantastic creatures.

 
Fire-breathing dragon

Year: c. 1260
Originally published in: Medieval bestiary
Now appears in: Beasts: Factual and Fantastic by Elizabeth Morrison © J. Paul Getty Museum
Discussed in: Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite by Matt Kaplan
A feature common in medieval European dragon stories was a dragon's ability to breathe fire; Beowulf fought just such a beast in the epic poem from the early Middle Ages. Perhaps this worrisome dragon feat simply emerged from someone's desire to tell a really good story, but Kaplan highlights some intriguing possibilities from the real world. The furious dragon in Beowulf torched the local landscape after waking from a nap to find a valuable goblet had been stolen from its lair. In 2003, the husband-and-wife archaeologist/linguist team of Paul and Elizabeth Barber proposed that the fire-breathing dragon — which left no trace of itself once slain — might have been inspired by a real phenomenon in medieval northern Europe, where dank burial chambers and decaying corpses provided the perfect nursery for methane-producing bacteria. If you were a grave robber in the Middle Ages looking for loot, you'd need to take a torch along for light, and if the flame from your torch ignited the methane, you might think you'd awakened a fire-breathing monster. Ancient miners armed with torches might also have stumbled into explosive gas deposits deep underground.

 
Jade dragon pendant

Century: 3rd BC
Appears at: Pendant in the Form of a Knotted Dragon © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art: "A conceptual as well as a technical tour de force, this pendant defies the obdurate character of jade and makes it appear to be impossibly supple and pliant. The pendant takes the form of a serpentine dragon, whose body is grooved to resemble twisted rope. The two ends of the dragon overlap to form a circular ring. One end has a flattened felinelike head with gaping jaws, bared fangs, and striations marking the eyebrow and upper lip. The other end loops behind the head and doubles back in an elegant counter curve. At the bottom of the ring, the sculptor further defies the nature of the medium by making the body appear to have tied itself in a double knot. The pendant was suspended from a small horizontal perforation drilled through the neck of the dragon at the apex of the ring, just behind the juncture of the two ends."
In contrast to the fire-spewing, bling-hoarding, virgin-chomping beasts of the West, dragons were viewed much more favorably in the East — cheerful animals that could bring life-giving rain. The Chinese prized jade perhaps as much as they prized dragons, and working such hard material would require tremendous skill.

 
Dragon

Year: 1664-1678
Scientist/artist: Athanasius Kircher
Originally published in: Mundus Subterraneus
Now appears in: Athanasius Kircher by Joscelyn Godwin
Kircher also included in Mundus Subterraneus this "small" dragon said to be found during the time of Pope Gregory XIII, who died in 1585. The creature was kept in the collection of the naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi, a cousin of the newly elected pope. Unlike some of Kircher's other dragon pictures, this one lacks wings.
Larger image available

 
Dragon from manuscript

Year: c. 1471
Originally published in: Prayer Book of Charles the Bold
Now appears in: Beasts: Factual and Fantastic by Elizabeth Morrison © J. Paul Getty Museum
Regardless of how medieval Europeans felt about dragons, the magnificent beasts made magnificent decorations, such as this grouchy but cute little creature.

 
Dragon and elephant

Century: 12th
Originally published in: Royal Bestiary
Now appears in: The Book of Fabulous Beasts by Joseph Nigg
This 12th-century bestiary illustration was likely influenced by the work of Isidore of Seville, who was influenced by the Classical scholar Pliny. Isidore was born around 560, and although he was a bishop, he introduced a certain degree of secularism to bestiaries. Animals were animals, not necessarily living, breathing morality lessons existing just for the benefit of humans. The relaxation of the bestiary moral code, however, didn't keep folklore about fanciful animals out of Isidore's encyclopedia. Thanks to its sheer size, this dragon, or draco, poses a threat even to the elephant (which is rendered with impressive accuracy). According to legend, the dragon could entangle the elephant's legs and strangle the proboscidian.

 
Dragon

Year: 1572
Scientist/artist: Ulisse Aldrovandi
Originally published in: Tavole di Animali
Now appears in: Possessing Nature by Paula Findlen
Ulisse Aldrovandi produced his own description of the alleged dragon that was brought to him for inspection upon the elevation of Pope Gregory XIII. Aldrovandi immediately set to work writing about the animal, even looking into the commonly held belief of the time that serpents arose from eggs laid by roosters. Meanwhile, locals saw the dragon as an omen of bad times ahead.
Larger image available

 
Dragon

Year: 1640
Scientist/artist: Ulisse Aldrovandi
Originally published in: Liber Serpentium et Draconum
Now appears in: Amazing Rare Things by Attenborough, Owens, Clayton and Alexandratos
Aldrovandi did more than collect alleged dragon carcasses, he also published descriptions of them, complete with illustrations. Europeans of Aldrovandi's time believed in several different kinds of dragons, some without legs, some with two legs, some with four legs, even some with eight legs. No one less than Leonardo da Vinci gave serious consideration to how and where a dragon's wings would attach.
Larger image available

 
Dragon

Year: 1640
Scientist/artist: Ulisse Aldrovandi
Originally published in: Liber Serpentium et Draconum
Image provided by: Biodiversity Heritage Library (some rights reserved)
This fantastic creature mixes traits of multiple animals (bird feet, serpent tail, shark teeth, mottled fog skin) and combines them with a trait of a monster (seven heads). This picture roughly resembles the hydra woodcut published nearly a century earlier by Conrad Gesner, and a woodcut very much like Gesner's hydra appears on the preceding page of Aldrovandi's book. In all likelihood the similar creatures were derived from the seven-headed beast in the Book of Revelation, itself a metaphor for Rome's famed seven hills. Aldrovandi remained fascinated by dragons, seven-headed and single-headed, all his life.

 
Starry Salamander

Year: 1560
Scientists/artists: Conrad Gesner
Published in: Icones Animalium
Now appears in: "The Sources of Gessner's Pictures for the Historia Animalium" by S. Kusukawa in Annals of Science
This so-called salamander has birdlike feet, fur, a remarkably knobby head, a piggish nose, ears, and a neat row of stars running down its back. Gesner made his share of mistakes about the natural world, but by the time he reproduced this illustration in Icones Animalium, he knew quite well it was wrong. He didn't have a problem with publishing conflicting illustrations, especially when he could compare a bad example to a better one. By showing this image along with a more accurate rendition, Gesner probably hoped to clear up misconceptions.
Expanded image available

 
Winged dragon

Year: 1658
Scientists/artists: Conrad Gesner and Edward Topsell
Published in: Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes and Serpents
Now appears in: Topsell's Histories of Beasts edited by Malcolm South
Topsell did not present dragons as uniformly evil, but instead as creatures of a mixed nature. He also described the animals' medicinal values. "First, the fat of a dragon dried in the sun is good against creeping ulcers; and the same mingled with honey and oil helps the dimness of the eyes. . . . The head of a dragon keeps one from looking asquint. . . . The fat of dragons is of such virtue that it drives away venomous beasts. It is also reported that by the tongue or gall of a dragon boiled in wine men are delivered from the spirits of the night called incubi and succubi, or else nightmares."
Larger image available

 
Horned dragon

Year: 1658
Scientist: Edward Topsell
Published in: Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes and Serpents
Now appears at: Topsell's Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes at the University of Houston Digital Library
This dragon appeared in the same illustration as the snakelike winged creature above. Topsell believed in nearly endless dragon variety, writing, "There are divers sorts of dragons, distinguished by their countries, partly by their quantity and magnitude, and party by the different form of their external parts. Some dragons have wings and no feet; some have both feet and wings, and some have neither feet nor wings, but are only distinguished from the common sort of serpents by a comb upon their heads and by a beard under their cheeks." The feature on this dragon's head looks not so much like a comb as a pair of devilish horns.

 
Snake egg thief

Year: 1497
Originally appeared in: Medieval woodcut
Now appears in: The Star-Crossed Stone by Kenneth J. McNamara
Medieval Europeans didn't feel much affection for snakes, but still coveted snake eggs, believing they had magical powers. No less an authority than Pliny passed along advice on how to procure one of the precious items. The intrepid snake egg thief had to leap over a writhing mass of hissing snakes, toss the snake egg into the air, and apparently catch it in a piece of cloth. Another interpretation of the heist was that the snakes themselves would loft the eggs into the air. Either way, if the snake egg fell to the ground, so the rulebook read, its magical powers were lost. The only problem was that the objects thought to be snake eggs were really fossil sea urchins. Alternately called fairy loaves, pixie weights and shepherds' crowns, the fossils were believed to protect against bad luck, protect against illness, safeguard their owners from lightning, help the deceased on their journey to the afterlife, or help the deceased return to life. Humans apparently have a long history of collecting and revering fossil sea urchins. A hand axe with a fossil urchin embedded in it has been attributed to Homo heidelbergensis.
Larger image available

 
Basilisk-Rattlesnake

Century: Early 17th
Scientist/artist: Crispin de Passe
Published in: America
Now appears in: "The Basilisk and Rattlesnake, or a European Monster Comes to America" by Boria Sax in Society and Animals
This engraving, which was not necessarily intended to be taken literally, shows a creature resembling a basilisk — a creepy hybrid animal with avian and reptilian characteristics. Europeans thought the basilisk could kill with its malevolent gaze, and the same quality was attributed to the American rattlesnake. Although rattlesnakes eat plenty of other reptiles, early accounts of their diet listed only "higher" animals like birds and small mammals. Sax argues that, in the European mindset, the evil-eye capability of basilisks and rattlesnakes could be explained by the envy that lowly types feel toward their betters.

 
Possum-Chameleon

Year: 1534
Scientist/artist: Andrea Alciati
Published in: Emblematum libellus
Now appears in: "Marcus Gheeraerts and the Aesopic Connection in Seventeenth-Century Scientific Illustration" by William B. Ashworth in Art Journal
Some of the earliest naturalist texts and illustrations took their inspiration from non-scientific sources, specifically emblem books and fables. That might explain this "chameleon," which looks very little like the reptile it's meant to represent, and more like a grouchy possum. Medieval and Renaissance naturalists often conveyed morals with their accounts of animal life and the chameleon, able to change colors, was disliked for its duplicity.

 
Chameleon

Year: 1553
Scientist/artist: Pierre Belon
Published in: De aquatilibus
Now appears in: "Marcus Gheeraerts and the Aesopic Connection in Seventeenth-Century Scientific Illustration" by William B. Ashworth in Art Journal
Two decades after Alciati's improbable chameleon, Pierre Belon introduced a far more accurate rendition. Not only does this chameleon look familiar to the modern viewer in general appearance, but it's also accurate in details many would miss. On its front feet, the chameleon has two outside toes and three inside toes. On its hind feet, the numbers are reversed. Even though this chameleon's leg posture looks a little odd, it illustrates the creature's strange toe arrangement. And it looks nothing like a possum.

 
Chameleon

Year: c. 1500
Originally published in: Hortus Sanitatis
Now appears in: Natural History in Shakespeare's Time by H.W. Seager
Image provided by: Biodiversity Heritage Library (some rights reserved)
In 1896, Herbert West Seager assembled a Goof Gallery of his own: a book entitled Natural History in Shakespeare's Time. He assembled passages of text from multiple sources, and used woodcuts photographed from Hortus Sanitatis. Seager's copy of the herbal was undated, but he pointed out to his readers that multiple editions of the book dated from 1490 to 1517. Although the passages Seager included about the species were entertaining, none of them come close to this woodcut. Madagascar — and everyplace else that chameleons live — must have been far away from the artist.

 
Emblem

Year: 1635
Scientist/artist: George Wither
Published in: A Collection of Emblemes
Now appears in: "Poor, Bare, Forked" by Laurie Shannon in Shakespeare Quarterly
Another example of animals as emblems included the crocodile, with the rather improbable characteristic of virtue (or "vertue"). After listing weapons people might acquire for their own protection, Wither warned in verse:
"If, therefore, thou thy Spoylers, wilt beguile,
Thou must be armed, like this Crocodile;
Ev'n with such nat'rall Armour (ev'ry day)
As no man can bestowe, or take away:
For, spitefull Malice, at one time or other,
Will pierce all borrowed Armours."
With a canine mouth, birdlike legs, and a high-flying tail, this crocodile left a little room for improved realism, but it beat medieval bestiary crocodile pictures.
Larger image available

 
Crocodile and hydrus

Year: c. 1270
Originally published in: Bestiary
Now appears in: Beasts: Factual and Fantastic by Elizabeth Morrison © J. Paul Getty Museum
"The [hy]drus is a worthy enemy of the crocodile and has this characteristic and habit: When it sees a crocodile sleeping on the shore, it enters the crocodile through its open mouth, rolling itself in mud in order to slide more easily down its throat. The crocodile therefore, instantly swallows the [hy]drus alive. But the [hy]drus, tearing open the crocodile's intestines, comes out whole and unharmed." True to bestiary tradition, the description offered a moral, namely that the crocodile represented death, and the hydrus represented Christ, who defeats death. Symbolic meaning aside, the hydrus might have been based on observations of some kind of water snake, albeit with the addition of feet and pointy ears; the crocodile clearly wasn't based on observation.

 
Crocodile and water snake

Century: 13th
Originally published in: Medieval manuscript
Now appears at: A Crocodile Devouring a Water Snake Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
The Getty Museum hosts more than one manuscript showing a furry crocodile fighting a losing battle. If, like the [hy]drus shown above, the water snake represents God defeating death, then this "water snake" might allude to the Trinity with its three heads. Not quite a typical snake, it also has legs, at least a hind set. Front legs, if they exist, are somewhere inside the unfortunate crocodile. The illustrator(s) who portrayed the beasts had apparently seen neither an actual crocodile nor an actual snake, but certainly knew how to wield gold leaf.

 
Dragons of Mount Pilate

Year: 1664-1678
Scientist/artist: Athanasius Kircher
Originally published in: Mundus Subterraneus
Now appears in: Dragons, Unicorns, and Sea Serpents by Charles Gould
Though the prospect of a dragon usually frightened Europeans, that wasn't always the case. Kircher relayed the story of a man from Lucerne who fell into a cavern while he traveled across Mount Pilate. The cavern had no exit and two dragons. Luckily they left the man alone. After six months, during which he apparently lived on nothing but water, he noticed the dragons fixing to fly away, and attached himself to one dragon's tail, hitching a ride home. After surviving six months of cohabitation with dragons, he dropped dead from resuming his regular diet. Dragons weren't the problem; dairy was.
Larger image available

 
Knight fighting dragon

Year: 1664-1678
Scientist/artist: Athanasius Kircher
Originally published in: Mundus Subterraneus
Now appears in: Dragons, Unicorns, and Sea Serpents by Charles Gould
Kircher showed yet another dragon, the Dragon of Drachenfeldt, fighting a knight in an underground cavern. This long-necked, bat-winged, donkey-eared, snake-tailed beast looks poised to do some very nasty damage to the knight's ankles.
Larger image available

 
Frolicking serpents

Year: 1664-1678
Scientist/artist: Athanasius Kircher
Originally published in: Mundus Subterraneus
Image provided by: Biodiversity Heritage Library (some rights reserved)
In his two volumes of Mundus Subterraneus, Kircher discusses gravity, eclipses, weather, the sun and moon, subterranean men, giants, poisons and antidotes, astrology, fireworks, fossils, dragons, demons and more. Included among the lavish illustrations are maps — Eden before Eve bit into the apple, and homier places like the Black Forest. This excerpt of a Black Forest map shows Mummelsee, a lake that remains a popular tourist destination today. The map might be described as realistic were it not for the reptilian monsters frolicking in the water. Legends persist even now about water sprites and a king who likes to drag ladies under the waves.

 
King slaying dragon

Year: 1555
Scientist/artist: Olaus Magnus
Originally published in: History of Nordic Peoples
Now appears at: Olaus Magnus - History of the Nordic Peoples - Illustrations with Comments (http://www.avrosys.nu/prints/prints23-b-olausmagnus-intro.htm)
Olaus Magnus's book wasn't an account of far-off exotic people, but the story of his own country, Sweden. His familiarity with the land described, however, didn't prevent the occasional tall tale. This crude woodcut shows the noble King Harald and his loyal servant killing the dragon that was supposed to kill them. While the king drives a razor through the beast's navel, the servant boxes the poor thing about its ears with a femur and skull.

 
Griffin

Year: c. 310
Originally appeared in: Piazza Armerina, Sicily
Now appears in: The First Fossil Hunters by Adrienne Mayor (Photo by Barbara Mayor)
In the seventh century BC, ancient Greeks made contact with Saka-Scythian nomads who prospected for gold in the Gobi Desert. One of the legends that the Greeks gleaned from this contact was of the griffin — a lion-sized, four-legged, winged animal with a "cruel sharp beak" — that ferociously guarded its hoard of gold. (A more cautious account suggested that griffins didn't guard gold but simply lived near it, and carefully protected their young from all intruders.) This Roman mosaic shows a griffin drawn to a trap whose unfortunate bait is a man. Where did this legend come from? Twentieth-century excavations in the Gobi have unearthed Protoceratops and Psittacosaurus skeletons, both beaked dinosaurs, from the same regions where the nomads prospected. It's quite possible that gold seekers found these fossils eroding out of the desert sands and, making astute observations about their skeletal structures, speculated on the appearance of the live animal. If so, their guesses about griffins protecting their young proved correct — a 21st-century find in Liaoning, China revealed an adult Psittacosaurus apparently guarding 34 juveniles.

 
Eagle/griffin capitals

Year: c. 500 BC
Photographed in: Persepolis, Iran by Sebastià Giralt (some rights reserved)
Discussed in: The First Fossil Hunters by Adrienne Mayor, "Griffins and Arimaspeans" by Adrienne Mayor and Michael Heaney in Folklore, 1993 issue, and "Persia: Ancient Soul of Iran" by Marguerite del Guidice in National Geographic, August 2008 issue
Given its location along the route later known as the Silk Road, the Persian Empire was ideally placed to absorb cross-cultural legends such as griffins. Carved some 25 centuries ago, these griffins can still be seen in Persepolis, Iran, an ancient capital of the Persian Empire. According to a nearby interpretative sign, these eagle/griffin capitals (apparently meant to crown a column) were likely intended for use in a local structure, but were later rejected for some reason. After their discovery in the mid-20th century, the griffins were mounted on a short pillar for preservation. Like other griffin depictions, these creatures boast fearsome beaks and characteristic griffin ears, although they lack the customary wings.

 
Griffin frieze

Year: c. 510 BC
Photographed in: Louvre Museum, Paris, by Steven Zucker (some rights reserved)
Discussed at: Louvre: Frieze of Griffins (http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/frieze-griffins)
Situated in modern-day Iran, Susa was an ancient city along the Royal Road of the Achaemenid (First Persian) Empire. In the early 20th century, Jacques de Morgan led a series of excavations at the Palace of Darius, recovering thousands of decorative bricks comprising portraits of mythological creatures. This reconstruction at the Louvre Museum shows a griffin, part of a larger group. This griffin is a composite animal, with front legs looking like a lion's, and back legs looking like an eagle's. It has birdlike wings but, in contrast to many other griffins, the head of a lion instead without any beak. On top of its head are two curved goat horns pointing in opposite directions. This frieze must have presented an impressive image as it was, in the analysis of the Louvre, "charged with a symbolism relating to the Persian empire" whether or not it was intended to be viewed as a literal creature. Today, though, the curving goat horns might have an unintentionally comic effect, as they look a little like a jester's hat. Having to wear a silly hat might explain why the griffin looks so angry.

 
Gryphon

Year: 1675
Scientist/artist: Athanasius Kircher
Originally published in: Arca Noë
Now appears in: Athanasius Kircher and Athanasius Kircher's Theatre of the World by Joscelyn Godwin
This Baroque depiction of a griffin (or gryphon) appeared in Arca Noë (Noah's Ark). The book was dedicated to Charles II of Spain, who was just 12 years old at the time. Among mythical beasts like griffins, mermaids and unicorns, Kircher included more pedestrian animals like elephants, lions and dogs. Kircher actually harbored doubts about the existence of griffins, but he had heard reports of them from China. He remarked that if they did exist, griffins likely belonged in the same category as vultures and eagles, "which have grown to such size either through the nature of the region or the influx of the heavens; wherefore we exclude them from the Ark." By the time Kircher penned Arca Noë, discoveries of so many animals from exotic locations had considerably crowded the biblical vessel.

 
Griffin

Century: 14th
Originally appeared in: Statuto e Registro dei Cambiavalute (Rule and Register of Currency Exchange) Perugia
Now appears in: Nature and Its Symbols by Lucia Impelluso and Stephen Sartarelli
Griffins weren't considered all bad. In fact, their impressive combination of characteristics (eagle-like strength and lion-like vigilance) made them attractive as mascots, particularly for those who managed money. Feet firmly planted on a treasure chest, this griffin is clearly doing its job.

 
Griffin aquamanile

Year: c. 1425-1450
Appears at: Aquamanile in the Form of a Griffin © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art: "This magnificent aquamanile in the form of a griffin with (separately cast) outstretched wings can be grouped stylistically with the unicorn [another specimen at the museum] and a few other examples that were probably produced by the same Nuremberg workshop in the second quarter of the 15th century. The aquamanile was filled through a hole between the ears, and water was poured from the spigot in the chest, likely a rare surviving original element."
Aquamaniles often held water needed for hand washing in Catholic masses and in upper-crust meals, and the water vessels often took human or animal form. Like the griffins that preceded it, this one sports a prominent beak and bird-foot forepaws.

 
Gold griffin belt buckle

Century: c. 6th-4th BC
Appears at: Plaque with Horned Lion-Griffins © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art: "In the 6th century BC, under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, the Persians established themselves at the head of an empire that would eventually extend from eastern Europe and Egypt to India. The Achaemenid Period is well documented by the descriptions of Greek and Old Testament writers and by abundant archaeological remains. Like the Achaemenid gold vessel decorated with the forepart of a lion also in the Museum's collection, this ornament depicts the winged lion-monster but here two creatures are shown rampant. In place of the lion's ears they have those of a bull. Horns curl back over spiky manes and the lion's neck is covered with a feather pattern. Sharply stylized wings extend over two of the five bosses and serve as decorative balance for the design. Heavy rings attached to the back suggest that the ornament was worn on a leather belt. the similar treatment of the lion motif on different types of objects demonstrates decorative conventions of the period."
Considering griffins reputedly guarded gold, it made sense to cast their likenesses in gold, too. Griffin bling for the brave warrior.

 
Brontosaurus

Year: 1898
Scientist: William Harlow Reed
Originally published in: New York Journal and Advertiser
Now appears in: Bone Wars by Tom Rea
The caption for the top image read, "How the Brontosaurus Giganteus Would Look If it Were Alive and Should Try to Peep into the Eleventh Story of the New York Life Building." The speck under the bottom dinosaur was intended to be a man, meaning this dinosaur's skull would measure an unlikely 3 feet tall. This "Most Colossal Animal Ever on Earth Just Found Out West" was inspired by William Harlow Reed's find of a single sauropod femur. Expecting to find more of the animal, Reed returned to the site with other collectors, but after luckless prospecting, he had to admit that the femur was all there was. Reed was generally a talented collector, but he often raised false hopes about what he could find. He played cards with the University of Wyoming and the Carnegie Museum to see which institution would offer him higher pay. And while collecting fossils for O.C. Marsh, Reed had no qualms about smashing the bones he couldn't collect just to keep them from Cope's collectors.

 
Peeping dinosaur

Year: 1886
Scientist/artist: Camille Flammarion
Originally published in: Le Monde avant la création de l'homme
Now appears in: Monsters: A Bestiary of the Bizarre by Christopher Dell
Titled "A prehistoric monster in a modern town," this illustration features another gigantic reptilian voyeur. The horn on the snout suggests Iguanodon leanings but by the time this prehistoric monster leered through a high-rise window, Louis Dollo had already established that Iguanodon's horn was really a thumb spike. Given this beast’s story-high head and front legs bending like human arms, however, realism probably wasn't the goal.
Larger image available

 
Megalosaurus and Iguanodon

Year: 1883
Scientist/artist: A. Demarly
Originally published in: La Création naturelle et les êtres vivants
Now appears in: The Reign of the Dinosaurs by Jean-Guy Michard
Another depiction of Iguanodon, also with a horn on its snout, shows the animal in a lizard-like pose. The same pose is applied to Megalosaurus. Because dinosaur skeletons were not fully understood, paleontologists of the time modeled the extinct reptiles after those still living.

 
Animals

Year: 1636
Scientist/artist: Antonio Tempesta
Originally published in: Collection of Quadrupeds
Now appears in: The Reign of the Dinosaurs by Jean-Guy Michard
These creatures look pretty odd today, but these depictions were much more plausible than what was commonly seen at the time. At least they're not fire-breathing dragons! The bottom illustration is of a crocodile.

 
Alligators

Year: c. 1791
Scientist/artist: William Bartram
Originally appeared in: Travels
Now appears in: Voyages of Discovery by Tony Rice © The Natural History Museum, London
Eighteenth-century naturalist Bartram wrote of Florida alligators: "They force the water out of their throat which falls from their mouth like a Cataract and a steam or vapour from their Nostrals like smoke." Bartram had a fascination not just for alligators, but also venomous snakes.

 
Pterosaurs

Year: 1843
Scientist/artist: E. Newman
Originally published in: "Note on the Pterodactyle Tribe Considered as Marsupial Bats" in The Zoologist
Now appears in: "The Case of the Bat-winged Pterosaur" by Kevin Padian in Dinosaurs Past and Present: Volume II
Pterosaurs were contemporaries of dinosaurs. They were not birds, bats or amphibians, but 19th-century artists depicted them as every one of those things. Although Georges Cuvier accurately identified pterosaurs as flying reptiles in 1812, his observations were largely ignored in favor of more fanciful restorations, such as this rat-eared, furry creature.
Larger image available

 
Pterosaurs with modern birds

Year: 1912
Scientist: Henry R. Knipe
Artist: Alice B. Woodward
Originally published in: Evolution in the Past
Image provided by: Biodiversity Heritage Library (some rights reserved)
Scientists have puzzled for decades over pterosaurian details such as locomotion on the ground and posture in flight, and not all these issues are necessarily settled now. This early-20th-century depiction might be off in a few details — the pterosaurs' trunks look a bit stout and their necks a bit short — but the general picture is right. But paired with the prehistoric pteranodons are some very modern-looking birds: a seagull standing by the shore and what might be a cockatoo in flight.

 
Pterosaur as a dragon

Year: 1829
Artist: George Howman
Originally appeared as: "Flying Dragon found at Lyme Regis, supposed to be noctivagous" (painting)
Now appears in: The Earth on Show by Ralph O'Connor
"Noctivagous" means wandering at night, and the Reverend Howman inscribed on the back of his nighttime painting that it was based on an account of a "flying dragon" fossil by William Buckland. Buckland's paper was about a pterodactyl fossil. Howman portrayed the pterosaur as a dragon, complete with a pointy tail, and put it into a present-day landscape, embellished with castle ruins and a listing ship. As flying reptiles, pterosaurs probably counted among the most puzzling fossils encountered by scientists in the early 19th century. At the same time scientists struggled to understand pterosaur appearance and behavior, artists such as Howman struggled to depict the animals in life. Howman erred on the side of dragons and time travel.

 
Pterosaur dragging its tail

Year: 1863
Artist: Édouard Riou, Louis Figuier
Originally published in: Earth Before the Deluge
Now appears in: "A Short History of Pterosaur Research" by Peter Wellnhofer in Zitteliana
Paleontologist Peter Wellnhofer points out that, at the beginning of the 19th century, few fossil reptiles had been found, so naturalists had to reconstruct ancient animals based on sparse information. Aside from all the other vexing problems about pterosaurs (Were they bats, birds, or reptiles? And how did they get off the ground?) there was the question of how they moved around while still on the ground. In his book about the history of life, Figuier reproduced Riou's reconstruction of pterosaur terrestrial locomotion. Riou believed he had found the evidence of how long-tailed pterosaurs moved — on all fours, tails dragging behind them — in tracks preserved in the Solnhofen limestone. It wasn't a bad approach; paleontologists often find clues to animal movement preserved in tracks, but Riou was wrong about the kind of animal that left those tracks. The tail dragging was really the work of horseshoe crabs. Some horseshoe crabs had the good manners to clarify their identities by simply dying at the ends of their tracks, and such "death march" fossils left little doubt. The identity of the track maker was only settled in about 1940, and just how pterosaurs move on the ground remained a topic of debate throughout the 20th century. Newer evidence indicates that Riou was at least correct about their quadrupedal gait.

 
Dinosaurs

Year: 1842
Scientist: George Richardson
Artist: John Martin
Originally published in: Geology for Beginners
Now appears in: Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World by Martin J.S. Rudwick
According to 19th-century artist John Martin, dinosaurs spent much of their lives engaged in belching contests. Martin, an exceptionally talented artist whose paintings on biblical and classical subjects include The Fall of Babylon, Belshazzar's Feast and Deluge, later turned his efforts to scientific subjects. Unfortunately, he never let the facts get in the way of a good picture. Martin's contemporaries certainly lacked his sense of drama. Then again, he lacked their sense of accuracy.
Larger image available

 
Sea-dragons

Year: 1840
Scientist: Thomas Hawkins
Artist: John Martin
Originally published in: The Book of the Great Sea-Dragons
Now available via: The Online Books Page (http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/book/lookupid?key=olbp19013)
The collaboration of artist John Martin with paleontologist Thomas Hawkins was a match made not in heaven but perhaps in the antediluvian inferno that Hawkins believed once dominated the globe. Contemporaries of dinosaurs, plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs were giant sea-dragons in his opinion, and his collaborator Martin accommodated that vision perfectly. The sea-dragons weren't just big, strong and hungry, Hawkins argued, they were evil. After describing one fossil, Hawkins explained to his readers the work of paleontologists: "By such inductions we revive the habits of Creatures long vanished away, and recolor the ardent Monster fleeting through the expanse of Seas like lightning to his distant prey, with a lust quenchable alone in gore." The sea-dragons aren't alone in this scene; vicious pterosaurs lurk about, one of them pecking at a dead animal's eye. Hawkins's eccentric take on the ancient earth didn't end with mean monsters. He was also confident that the planet was bathed in darkness. He doubted the sun even existed the days of his sea-dragons, and if it did, its light couldn't penetrate our planet's murky atmosphere. Dark days indeed.
Larger image available

 
Prehistoric scene

Year: 1837-1838
Scientist: Gideon Mantell
Artist: John Martin
Originally published in: The Wonders of Geology
Now appears in: The Google Cultural Institute (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Martin_-_The_country_of_the_Iguanodon_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg). Also discussed in Gideon Mantell and the Discovery of the Dinosaurs by Dennis R. Dean
Martin's painting of this scene has not survived, but this watercolor and subsequent engravings have. The engraving of Martin's work served as the frontispiece of Mantell's book — written in a less dramatic tone than Thomas Hawkins's apocalyptic tome on "sea-dragons." Mantell's caption text varied a bit in different editions, but explained the general scene: "The greater reptiles are the Iguanodon, Hylaeosaurus, Megalosaurus, and the Crocodile. An Iguanodon attacked by a Megalosaurus and Crocodile constitute the principal group; in the middle distance an Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus are preparing for an encounter; a solitary Pterodactyl, or flying reptile, with its wings partly expanded, forms a conspicuous object in the foreground while tortoises are seen crawling on the banks of the river. Ammonites and other shells of the Portland Oolite, which is the foundation rock of the country, are strewn on the shore." Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus weren't Mantell's only fossil discoveries to figure in this scene. At Tilgate Quarry, Mantell had discovered plant fossils, including ferns and conifers. The dinosaurs in this image, though, bear the dueling-dragon look typical of Martin's other pictures.
Larger image available

 
Fighting Iguanodons

Year: 1851
Scientist: Franz Unger
Artist: Josef Kuwasseg
Originally published in: The Primitive World in Its Different Period of Formation
Now appears in: Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World by Martin J.S. Rudwick
This image shows a lush Cretaceous landscape, and provides another example of Gideon Mantell's iguanodons — again looking like giant lizards, again with their horns misplaced — but likely showing an event that must have happened: boys fighting over a girl.
Larger image available

 
Ancient reptiles

Year: 1837
Scientist/artist: William Buckland
Originally published in: Geology and Minerology Considered with Reference to Natural Theology
Now appears in: Making Modern Science by Bowler and Morus
Part of the Bridgewater Treatise project, Buckland's book was aimed at reconciling the newest discoveries in geology with religion. In fact, these winsome creatures were part of a larger diagram placing fossil organisms in their geologic context, and not a bad job for the time, except that they look a bit like dragons.
Expanded image available

 
Hadrosaur

Year: 1868
Scientists: Joseph Leidy and E.D. Cope
Artist: Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins
Originally appeared in: Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia
Now appears in: Joseph Leidy: The Last Man Who Knew Everything by Leonard Warren
Dinosaurs didn't generally need to hang onto trees for support, but in all fairness, this was a pretty good articulation — and the first relatively complete dinosaur skeleton known to science. (Unfortunately, the skull was missing. Hawkins, pictured standing under the skeleton, mocked up a giant iguana skull, and painted it green for this display.) Although the formidable comparative anatomist Sir Richard Owen maintained that dinosaurs walked on all fours, Joseph Leidy realized that the small size of the hadrosaur's forelimbs suggested that it was bipedal. This articulation, now widely accepted, lent credence to T.H. Huxley's theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs.

 
Dinosaurs

Year: 1877
Artist: Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins
Originally appeared in: Museum of Natural History, Princeton University
Now appears in: Dinosaurs Past and Present: Volume I, All in the Bones by Bramwell and Peck, and the Princeton University Art Museum
Princeton University invited Waterhouse Hawkins to paint a series of mural-size paintings of ancient life in the 1870s. Though paleontologists had given up the image of dinosaurs as oversized lizards decades earlier, he sometimes persisted in depicting them as such. These lizard-like creatures figured into his depiction of Jurassic life.

 
Cretaceous life

Year: 1877
Artist: Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins
Originally appeared in: Museum of Natural History, Princeton University
Now appears in: All in the Bones by Bramwell and Peck
Having worked with the paleontologist Joseph Leidy to reconstruct the most complete Hadrosaurus foulkii specimen yet found, Waterhouse Hawkins ranked among the most knowledgeable on the dinosaur's shape and posture. But although their reconstruction was far more accurate that other saurian reconstruction attempts — including Waterhouse Hawkins's own work at Crystal Palace Park in the 1850s — scientific understanding of the animal's posture was still being refined, and its skull was still based on that of a modern-day iguana's. Marching single-file to the shore, the hadrosaurs in this image look a bit like actors in lizard-man costumes in a low-budget sci-fi thriller. The poor things are fleeing an attack from a pack of Laelaps (Dryptosaurus) dinosaurs. The painting suggests that the hadrosaurs may not be any safer in the water, which teems with monstrous ichthyosaurs and sinister, snake-necked plesiosaurs.
Expanded image available

 
Dinosaurs

Year: 1868
Artist: Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins
Originally prepared for: American Museum of Natural History
Now appears in: American Monster by Paul Semonin
This sketch, from the library of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, shows Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins's proposal for a prehistoric hall. (Note the tiny visitors in the lower right corner.) The dragon-like dinosaurs look like they're up to no good.

 
Footprint

Year: 1836
Scientist: Edward Hitchcock
Originally published in: "Ornithichnology: Description of the Foot Marks of Birds (Ornithichnites) on New Red Sandstone in Massachusetts" in American Journal of Science and the Fine Arts
Now appears in: The Dinosaur Papers edited by Weishampel and White
Edward Hitchcock was a professor of geology and theology, and the president of Amherst College, as well as an enthusiastic collector of the tracks left behind by giant Biblical birds. At least he thought they were birds. Hitchcock actually produced beautifully engraved but wrongly identified dinosaur tracks.
Larger image available

 
Salamander in Fire

Year: 1617
Scientist/artist: Michael Maier
Originally published in: Atlanta Fugiens
Now appears in: The Body of the Artisan by Pamela H. Smith
This picture of a salamander in fire reflected the common belief that the animals were unharmed by fire, or could be reborn within it.

 
Grand Lezard

Year: c. 1720
Scientist/artist: Henri Abraham Chatelain
Originally published in: Decorative Images of People and Animals, with a Map of Southern Africa
This picture shows a "Grand Lezard du Cap" from southern Africa. Although fanciful, this frilly, tense creature is not too far-fetched. Other animals pictured in Chatelain's map looked like real animals, including zebras, a rhino, and a chameleon.

 
Man slaying dragon

Year: 1497
Originally published in: Hortus Sanitatis
Now appears in: Mysteries of the Middle Ages by Thomas Cahill and The Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences by Frank Dawson Adams
Among the objects believed to cure disease were "stones" from the bodies of animals, including draconites, taken from the head of a dragon. Hortus Sanitatis, which listed the valued stones, included this woodcut of a man slaying a diminutive beast. One might expect that draconites, coming from an animal that didn't actually exist, would be prized more than something from an animal as pedestrian as a mountain goat, but mountain goats won.

 
Stork eating a snake

Year: 1593
Scientist/artist: Adam Lonitzer
Originally published in: Herbal
Now appears in: "Wonderful Secrets of Nature" by Kathleen Crowther-Heyck in Isis June 2003 issue
Both arguably very distant relatives of dinosaurs, storks and snakes featured in Renaissance and Reformation literature that combined a little observation with heavy doses of moralizing. Lonitzer's book pointed out the multifaceted utility of these birds. For one, storks would toss a baby bird out of the nest once a year "so that the masters of the place under which they nest and breed may have the feathers as a tribute and tax, or as a tithe." Even better, storks hated snakes, and therefore kept them away from us. As if snakes weren't loathsome enough already, this little snake sported a crest on its head, reminiscent of the proud peacock. Nobody should forget, Lonitzer's readers knew, who tempted Eve into eating that apple.

Dinosaurs and Dragons | Mammals | Sea Monsters | Hominids | Earth Sciences | Plants | Birds | Monsters | Forgeries and Frauds
Home | Goof Gallery | Timeline | Biographies | Evolution | References | Search | Email

Bookmark and Share