Sunday, 14 September 2008

Dragons of the Air

Harry Govier Seeley was assistant to the famous palaeontologist, Adam Sedgwick, at the Woodwardian Museum, Cambridge. He was a very astute palaeontologist and stratigrapher in his own right and remained in post for many years despite offers of prestigious jobs elsewhere in the academic world.
Throughout his career, he was often in dispute with the considered expert on fossil life, Richard Owen. Some of Seeleys papers are quite scathing about Owen's ideas and theories. Seeley believed that fossil pterosaurs (and many dinosaurs) must have been warm blooded in order to function effectively in their environment. Owen considered them to be very reptile like and cold blooded. With the hindsight of modern science, Seeley was right on many points. He also considered both birds and pterosaurs to be separate groups with common affinities, placing them between the reptiles and mammals in his classification. This is also now accepted as good classification.

Towards the end of his career in 1901, Seeley wrote and published a book on fossil pterosaurs, both in the UK and USA. This book was a very popular text, selling out very quickly and requiring a second print run to satisfy demands. It was the first popular book on pterosaurs, and as such, quite an historic text.

The book "Dragons of the Air, an account of extinct flying reptiles" was produced as a hard back text and printed in the UK by Methuen and Company of London. The US edition was printed by D. Appleton and Company, New York. The reprint was produced in the UK and distributed world wide. Many Universities and Museums had pre-ordered copies. Dover Paperbacks also re-printed the book in 1966

This text contained what I consider to be the first sensible reconstructed diagrams of fossil pterosaurs. The illustrations, whilst economical for their day, were good quality and relevant to the text.


The classification is interesting - for instance - the illustration above shows a reconstruction of Cycnorhamphus, a Pterosaur from Solenhofen in Germany, the holotype is now in the University Museum at Tubingen. This was re-classified as Gallodactylus suevicus for many years, but convention has now dictated that the original classification is used.

I have now transcribed this text, which is well out of copyright, and added it to the archive texts of The Pterosaur Database. This is something that I had intended to do many years ago. The transcript can be downloaded from; Archive Papers. This is a 12MB file in .pdf format and will take a little time to download.

Seeley H G; 1901, Dragons of the Air: an account of extinct flying reptiles, London, New York (reprint - Dover Paperback, 1967) 240 pp.

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