New Mexico, one hundred million years ago, lay nameless and borderless and partially submerged beneath sprawling, shallow, briny seas.
Dinosaurs of every size and appetite wandered to the edge of these seas, in search of plants, or water, or smaller creatures further down the food chain. The air above them hung hot and dense, sagging with humidity, and pterosaurs flapped and glided against it. Pterosaurs — or pterodactyls, as they’re often called — once filled our Western skies, flying on leathery, membranous wings that sometimes stretched over forty feet from tip to tip.
Using multi-fingered hands and pointed mouths full of teeth, pterosaurs snapped up fish along the muddy banks of prehistoric lakes and oceans; one such pterosaur left its footprints along one sea’s western shore, deep time turned its tracks into stone, and Clayton Lake State Park — in the northeast corner of modern-day New Mexico — turned those prints into a tourist attraction. Bones of another pterosaur found in the San Juan Basin — in the northwestern part of the state — along with the presence of numerous other skeletons found throughout the West, suggest that pterosaurs lived all across what is now New Mexico, all throughout the age of dinosaurs.
In recent years, in Lordsburg, New Mexico, in the southwestern corner of the state, old-timers used to gather at the now-defunct Triple J, a local coffee shop/tavern, to play pool and trade stories. Many of these older residents had known even older people, and some of the stories they told dated back a full century. One man, Leroy Jones, used to talk about area ranchers in the late-1800s who swore they had seen pterosaurs — reptilian and enormous and startlingly alive — swooping over the desert hills and scrub brush of New Mexico’s southwestern Boot Heel.
In 1972, in Maxwell, New Mexico, not far from the petrified tracks of Clayton Lake State Park, a man named Ronald Monteleone, of Los Alamos, reported glimpsing a living pteranodon, one of the largest known pterosaur varieties.
“Ron Monteleone was driving near Maxwell, New Mexico, early one morning in June of 1972,” wrote Phillip O’Donnell in Dinosaurs: Dead or Alive?. “Suddenly he saw a twenty-five to thirty-foot pteranodon-like creature fly out a ravine.”
The credibility of this account suffers just a little from its author having written the book as a fourteen-year-old home schooler, using the online moniker of “Living Dinosaur Man for Christ,” and rabidly promoting the idea that mankind and dinosaurs were created together only six thousand years ago. The credibility of the late-1800s sightings suffer as well — mainly from a seemingly total lack of documentation — and yet other sightings of living pterosaurs have been reported throughout the country, and throughout the world.
In 1890, two cowboys around Tombstone, Arizona claimed they chased and shot at a wounded pterosaur, on horseback. In 1891, two pterosaurs allegedly terrorized a pen of chickens in Fresno, California. In 1961, the pilot of a small plane claimed he was “buzzed” by one over the Hudson River, in New York. And from 1972 to 1982, sightings of pterosaurs were reported frequently all across Texas, by a wide range of formerly reputable people. Pterosaur sightings have also been reported in the swamps of Zambia and the islands of Papua New Guinea, where significant bodies of native lore exist concerning pterosaur-like creatures.
The possibility of pterosaurs having survived into modern times — in New Mexico or anywhere — is highly unlikely. The sightings of pterosaurs in New Mexico’s southwestern Bootheel coincide a bit too conveniently with the alleged 1891 California sighting, which received quite a bit of national press at that time; also, according to cryptozoologist Mark A. Hall, Arizona’s two pterosaur-chasing cowboys were known to sometimes ride into Lordsburg in the 1890s and tell their story about it.
In reality, most witnesses to such anachronistic creatures actually saw large birds such as condors or herons, and the severity of the often-desert landscapes they were staring across unconsciously suggested to them a world millions of years younger than the world of today — a world perfectly suited for flying reptiles.
The possibility of pterosaurs having survived into modern times may be unlikely, but it isn’t unprecedented. In 1839, paleontologists discovered the fossil remains of a prehistoric fish — the coelacanth — and later theorized that this fish, with its stumpy, leglike fins, was the missing link between animals living in the sea and animals stepping onto land. They studied coelacanths as bygone creatures from another time, as things reduced by millennia to bits of petrified bone, as relics, as remnants of a dead past now gone from this world forever.
They studied them as fossils, until 1938, when a fisherman caught a live one.