Dimorphodon and the Reverend George Howman

An abridged version of “Dimorphodon and the Reverend George Howman’s noctivagous flying dragon: the earliest restoration of a pterosaur in its natural habitat”

By David M. Martill of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Portsmouth.

Full text in Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association
doi: 10.1016/j.pgeola.2013.03.003 – Available at

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


The original specimen of ‘Pterodactylus’ macronyx collected by Mary Anning in 1828

The original specimen of ‘Pterodactylus’ macronyx collected by Mary Anning in 1828, as illustrated by William Buckland (1834).

In 1828 Mary Anning (top), an impoverished fossil collector of Lyme Regis27,22, discovered an assemblage of bones (above) in the grey shales that form the striking Early Jurassic cliffs of the west Dorset coastline (above). The fossil, purchased by the British Museum of Natural History in 1835 now numbered NHMUK R1034, includes most of the bones of the post cranial skeleton of a pterodactyle (more properly called pterosaur) (below). Dean William Buckland (above) of Oxford2,3 identified it as a pterodactyle and provided a detailed description of it: he named it Pterodactylus macronyx. Thus was placed on record the first scientific description of an English pterosaur. Buckland referred the new fossil to the genus Pterodactylus established previously by Cuvier7 for specimens from Germanya, and he coined the specific epithet macronyx for the animals’ large claws on its first three fingers.

Pterodactylus drawings and lithograph

Top: Pterodactylus antiquus; holotype BSP AS.1.739. Middle: Lithograph by Collini (1784). It was this figure that Cuvier (1801) used to determine that this was the fossil of a ‘frightful beast’. Bottom: Ornithocephalus brevirostris Soemmerring, 1812. These two drawings were all that was available for Buckland to identify his Pterodactylus macronyx in 1828/9.

Pterosaurs had been described previously from three spectacular examples found in the Late Jurassic Solnhofen lithographic limestone of Bavaria, Germany; these had found their way, some perhaps as early as 175719, into the private museums of the ruling classes of Europe. One specimen, now known as the ‘Pester’ example, was originally thought to have been a long-legged crustacean, while a second example, and the first to be scientifically described, was tentatively considered to be an unknown aquatic animal with foldable arms 5. The latter specimen (top) was later reappraised by Georges Cuvier6 who recognised that the little fossil described by Collini was a reptile, and a volant one at that. Cuvier made his assessment from the lithograph of Collini (middle), having had no opportunity to see the original. A while later, Cuvier7 revisited the specimen, naming it Ptero Dactyle – wing finger. The complete name for this specimen, Pterodactylus antiquus remains valid to this day due to popular use. Shortly afterwards, a third and smaller example from the Solnhofen limestone was described and named Ornithocephalus brevirostris by Soemmerring23,24: thus, Mary Anning’s discovery was the fourth pterosaur to be recognised, but the first to be found in the United Kingdom. Previously pterosaur bones had been found but not recognised in England, possibly as early as 1757 when some fossil ‘bird’ bones were mentioned from the Jurassic Stonesfield ‘slate’ of Oxfordshire1, and certainly in the early 1820s when both Webster30 and Mantell12,13 figured Cretaceous bones attributed to birds but later identified as pterosaurian16.