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Abstract

Pterodactyls or pterosaurs, well-known flying reptiles of the Mesozoic, were already compared with dragons and vampires well before the discovery of the spectacularly large species from North America with wing spans of over 6 m. First described in 1784, they were not recognized as flying reptiles until 1801, when Baron Cuvier described a specimen that a few years later he called Ptero Dactyle which later became Pterodactylus. The name Pterodactylus is technically invalid – it is a junior synonym of Ornithocephalus Soemmerring 1812 – but it has stuck in the psyche of both palaeontologists and public alike. By the end of the nineteenth century numerous workers had compared pterosaurs with demons, dragons and vampires and life restorations had appeared in books, magazines and as gargoyles on the external architecture of the Natural History Museum, London. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famously the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a polymath, with interests in science, sport, politics, travel, the occult and of course writing. He trained as, and became, a physician, with an eventually thriving general practice in Southsea, Hampshire from 1882 to 1890. In 1912, first as a series in Sunday magazines in the USA and in Strand Magazine in the UK, and shortly after as a hardback, he published The Lost World, an adventure story about the exploration of a South American tableland with prehistoric creatures that had persisted to the present. Although dinosaurs existed in this anachronistic fictional ecosystem, the ‘star’ animals were pterodactyls. Here we discuss the notoriety of pterodactyls generated by The Lost World, and hold Conan Doyle responsible for the widespread popularity of these iconic prehistoric reptiles right up to the present day.

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