Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began to write The Lost World in 1911. One year later it was published in book form by Hoddar and Stoughton. By that time he already was one of the most popular author around the globe, thanks to his most iconic creation, Sherlock Holmes. It’s well documented that Conan Doyle had a great interest in paleontology. He attended several talks on fossils and among his friends were Ray Lankester, Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward. He was part of several palaeontological digs and also visited the now infamous Piltdown Man excavations in Sussex.
Pterosaurs are an extinct monophyletic clade of ornithodiran archosauromorph reptiles from the Late Triassic to Late Cretaceous. Pterodactylus is a genus of pterosaurs, popularly known as pterodactyls. The first pterosaur discovered was identified in 1784 by Italian scientist Cosimo Collini but was Georges Cuvier who coined the term “Pterodactyle” in 1809 after the discovery of a fossil skeleton in Bavaria, Germany. Although, the first published depiction appears to be in the watercolour Duria Antiqior by Henry de la Beche, where several pterosaurs are seen flitting over a scene of ichthyosaur and plesiosaur, representing the Liassic Sea based on fossils found by Mary Anning. Richard Owen’s (1870) also included a short chapter on pterosaurs in his classic text book “Palaeontology”.
But probably, one of the most influential works in Doyle’s novel was “Extinct Animals” by Ray Lankester. The book was published in 1905, with a short chapter dedicated to pterosaurs where he emphasized the shape of the wings and supported by detailed illustrations.
The Lost World, has much in common with ”Journey to the Centre of the Earth” by Jules Verne. This book was published in France in 1874 and it was Verne, who first introduced Pterosaurs into popular fiction. But there’s a profound contrast between the treatment that both writers gave to Pterosaurs. In “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”, the pterosaurs had a small presence while in “The Lost World”, pterosaurs are central figures.
At the beginning of the novel, Professor George Edward Challenger claims to have captured and subsequently lost, a living specimen in South America. After being ridiculed for years, he invites E. Malone, a reporter for the Daily Gazette, Professor Summerlee and Lord John Roxton, an adventurer who knows the Amazon to join him to a trip to South America and prove his story. Later, the crew were attacked by pterodactyls in a swamp. Doyle compares the place with one of the Seven Circles of Dante and described as followed: “The place was a rookery of pterodactyls. There were hundreds of them congregated within view. All the bottom area round the water-edge was alive with their young ones, and with hideous mothers brooding upon their leathery, yellowish eggs”
Doyle completes the scenes by describing the males: “Their huge, membranous wings were closed by folding their fore-arms, so that they sat like gigantic old women, wrapped in hideous web-coloured shawls, and with their ferocious heads protruding above them. Large and small, not less than a thousand of these filthy creatures lay in the hollow before us”
Later, the protagonists discussed over the correct identification of the genus: Are they Pterodactylus or Dimorphodon? Throughout the story the pterodactyls appear and reappear, attacking them and stealing their food. Finally, one is captured and brought back to London and it’s presented to an audience at the Zoological Institute, but the creature makes its escape through an open window. No other animal receives such continued treatment throughout the book, or is illustrated in such detail. This could indicates that Doyle was fascinated by pterodactyls.
The Lost World novel has been so immensely popular that it has had a lasting effect, and has contributed significantly to the fascination with dinosaurs and pterodactyls. Even more, the first full-length animated science fiction film was based on Conan Doyle’s novel. This is a trailer of that movie.
In 1994, Arthurdactylus a genus of pterodactyloid pterosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil was named in honor of Arthur Conan Doyle.
Conan Doyle, A., The Lost World & Other Stories, Wordsworth Editions (1995)
Martill, D. M, and Pointon, Tony, Dr Arthur Conan Doyle’s contribution to the popularity of pterodactyls, Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 375, 2013, doi:10.1144/SP375.19