Beyond ornithology

There are, so far as I can count, six kinds of flying creatures about this earth: birds, bats, aeroplanes, helicopters, flies, and pterodactyls. There are many species within each of these orders, and I have simplified this morning’s Idlepost by excluding things that merely float upon the breeze, such as smoke and squirrels.

Indeed, my thoughts in the wee hours of this morning are focused upon pterodactyls, the more interesting to me because I have never seen a live one. Or rather, I don’t think I have. Apparently, no one else claims to have spotted one living, either, but as the pop science logicians insist, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There are large areas of the planet I have not personally explored, and moreover, I may have seen one perched on a wire along Queen Street the other evening, when I was returning from the pub. Hard to tell in the poor lighting: it may instead have been a large, dark green, plastic garbage bag, which I would have to class among the gliders.

According to some authorities, the pterodactyls (or “pterosaurs” as they now call them, in their mania for inclusivity), are extinct. But as a reader of BBC Nature I am not so easy to fool. Lots of species, including those presumed extinct, are being photographed these days — even faster than the ecological types can put them on their “endangered” lists.

A better theory, or an equally plausible, is they fly so high that we cannot see them; live on ozone as whales on krill; and dive, when moved to do so, at lightning speed. This would account for the fact that their remains are often found deeply buried in the soil.

Ovid is my authority on questions of evolution. Lucretius gives some good pointers, too; but the Metamorphoses are specifically devoted to the topic, and would be much better appreciated today, if people were properly educated. Ovid’s accounts of the origins of species (he does not make Darwin’s mistake of attributing all to the same causes) includes numerous transformations into winged beings, by condensation, heat, fire, and liquefaction.

Scholars have identified the creatures that sprang from the smoke and ashes of Memnon’s funeral pyre (the memnonides of book XIII) with ruffs and reeves. But the exquisite description (around line 600) of the condensing bubbly lightness in thin, seemingly membranous wings, of whirring pinions and the ascending clamour, might easily apply instead to pterodactyls.

There are many other places where pterodactyls may have been indicated, thanks to the intervention of the dawn goddess, Eos — by Astraeus, mother of the winds and the stars — or some other superlunary mediator; and the general account of the formation of the sky in the De Rerum Natura, from the lighter particles of fire and air, supplies the necessary connectives. For creatures of the sky must partake of the empyrean; are not cloddish and weighted like Icarus and ourselves.

Now, gentle reader may propose problems of chronology, in the modern way. But I do not see that these should be allowed to vex us, in our metamorphic studies. Time, for us, as for all animals once hatched into this world, is the strait arrow; but in the mysterious processes of Creation, there are wormholes everywhere.

Even that atheist, Charles Lyell, author of what he imagined to be The Principles of Geology (1830), assumed that the dinosaurs would return, once climatic conditions became favourable — the iguanodon to the woods, the icthyosaur to the seas, and “the pterodactyle to flit again through the umbrageous groves of tree-ferns” (page 123 in the old two-volume edition). And what atheist and evolutionist would dare to clash with the authority of Lyell, who replaced Genesis in the Darwinian scheme?

Of course the pterodactyls will return. It is only a question of where they are hiding.