Dimorphodon and the Reverend George Howman – Discussion

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Mary Anning, William Buckland and ‘Pterodactylus’’ macronyx
  3. The Reverend G. E. Howman and the Noctivagous Dragon
  4. Dimorphodon and the Reverend George Howman – Discussion
  5. Dimorphodon and the Reverend George Howman – Notes & References

Long tailed Dimorphodon with skull - Owen,1859

The watercolour by Reverend G. E. Howman is an oddity, not because it incorporates a pterodactyl contemporary with man as depicted by a ruined cliff-top castle and storm-tossed ship, but because it naively predicts aspects of the anatomy of pterodactyls not brought to light by fossils discovered until a few decades after its execution. Unwittingly, Howman predicted many aspects of the anatomy of pterosaurs, while at the same time getting so much of their anatomy fundamentally wrong. The long tail with Wyvern-like terminal ‘arrow’ possessed of rhamphorhynchid, and perhaps other pterosaurs was not discovered until later in the century (Marsh15 for a Rhamphorhynchus with long tail and terminal vane; Owen20 for long tail in Dimorphodon, right).

The first pterosaur with a preserved head crest was not described until 1876 with an occipital crest found to be present in the Late Cretaceous pterosaur Pteranodon six years after its first discovery14. It is not known if any other illustrators saw Howman’s picture, but it is clear that many of the same mistakes perpetrated by Howman are found on the pterosaur reconstructions of subsequent artists and even occur in many contemporary illustrations. It can be surmised that Howman must have met Buckland, presumably in 1828, a conversation took place that prompted Howman to paint the scene, and one can imagine that an extremely excited Buckland might have been very willing to discuss the discovery and his idea about it. It is highly unlikely that the image of the noctivagous pterosaur was supervised by Buckland, but Buckland did state in his paper presented to the Geological Society on February 6th, 1929 that the animal may have been both noctivagous and insectivorous. As Howman’s painting is dated 1828, he cannot have learned this by being at the Geological Society lecture, nor from anyone present. It is possible that the label on the back of the painting was written much later, and by another person, but the scene appears to be set on a night of clouded moonlight. We do not know why Buckland thought it was nocturnal, but can assume he was comparing pterosaurs with bats.


I am especially grateful to Kate Hebditch, formerly at Philpot Museum, for so ably assisting me with this research. Thanks also to Paddy Howe and Mike Applegate for assistance at the Philpot Museum and Graham Davies for arranging photographs of the picture. I have benefitted enormously from discussion with Mr Chris Moor on the Lias at Lyme. Thanks are due to Sandra Chapman and Lorna Steel (both NHMUK) and Rob Theodore and Matthew Riley (Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge) for granting access to specimens of Dimorphodon. I am also especially grateful to Mark Witton for once again allowing me to use his wonderful pterosaur artwork, to Helmut Tischlinger who drew my attention to the artwork of Goldfuss, and to Professor Tony Pointon who kindly commented on the manuscript.