Ghost Lights, Barn Owls, and Pterosaurs

Before the publication of the first edition of Live Pterosaurs in America (the second edition should be published by about Thanksgiving, 2010), who would have tied together ghost lights, barn owls, non-extinct pterosaurs? Indeed, before the twenty-first century few Americans ever thought about non-extinct pterosaurs, except those Americans who were eyewitnesses of those flying creatures. But there is a connection, revealed in detail in my nonfiction book and summarized here.

In the United States, mysterious lights that fly as if directed by some intelligence—those lights are sometimes called “ghost lights.” They may fly down railroad tracks or abandoned rail lines at night; some fly down country roads. When one of them flies like a hunting barn owl would fly, then it is probably . . . well, a hunting barn owl. “But barn owls don’t glow,” you say? Well, actually some of them do glow, though you will not likely find a biology-textbook page containing “barn owl” by looking up “bioluminescence” in the index. You will find, however, in a book by bird expert Fred Silcock (of Australia), many references to glowing barn owls; in fact, the whole book is about glowing barn owls: The Min Min Light, The Visitor Who Never Arrives.

I was delighted when my copy of this book arrived in the mail. I had explored a remote tropical island in Papua New Guinea, to search for a bioluminescent flying creature called “ropen,” so I was already heavily involved in the mysteries of strange flying lights. I noticed, while reading the Silcock book, that the way glowing barn owls fly differs from the way ropens fly: Owls make a slow zip-zag at low altitude; ropens fly straight at higher altitude. In addition, the ropen of Umboi Island glows very brightly but for only a few seconds at a time; barn owl Min Mins glow less brilliantly but for a long time. Most telling, when a glowing owl is seen up close, it is seen to be a barn owl (“Great Owl” is what Australians call it); when a ropen is seen up close, it is seen to be a long-tailed pterosaur (“Rhamphorhynchoid” is what my associates and I call it).

Not all American ghost lights fly down old rail lines, weaving back and forth like hunting barn owls. Consider the Marfa Lights of southwest Texas. The truly mysterious lights of Marfa (not the mirages of car headlights)—those lights behave intelligently, in fact too intelligently to be barn owls, and they are too bright. Indeed, they resemble some of the mysterious lights in Papua New Guinea, although they usually glow much longer than the ropen of Umboi Island. Consider the dancing behavior of the mysterious lights in southwest Texas; that is far from any common behavior of barn owls. My investigation has revealed significant circumstantial evidence that the Marfa Lights are made by bioluminescent flying predators. I strongly suspect that they are related to at least some of the bioluminescent pterosaurs of the southwest Pacific. Yes, there seem to be more than one species of living pterosaurs. Why not read the second edition of my nonfiction book, Live Pterosaurs in America?

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