Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The ropens of Papua New Guinea

Mike T brings my attention to the incompletely documented creatures called ropens. Several eye-witness accounts describe featherless flying creatures that perch upright on trees on the islands of Papua New Guinea.
Around Manus Island, the wingspan is three to four feet, according to Jim Blume, a missionary in Wau, on the mainland. Blume’s investigations indicate that wingspans may reach ten to fifteen feet in other areas. Whitcomb’s book mentions a few ropens that are even larger, including the ones seen by Hodgkinson and the Australian couple.
I am familiar with a variety of sightings of reptiles that are otherwise thought to be extinct, such as the bunjip. But I had not heard about ropens.

The description seems to be of a pterosaur. What I found particularly interesting about these sightings was the mention of lights on the animals.
Two natives described a ropen holding itself upright on a tree trunk (fruit bats hang upside down from branches), and his book also describes an apparently bioluminescent glow that may help the nocturnal creatures catch fish.
I am not aware that palaeontologists propose bioluminescence in pterosaurs. However previous eye-witnesses have suggested something similar. In his book After the Flood, Bill Cooper quotes Marie Trevelyan's book Folk-Lore and Folk Stories of Wales, published in 1909.
The woods around Penllin Castle, Glamorgan, had the reputation of being frequented by winged serpents, and these were the terror of old and young alike. An aged inhabitant of Penllyne, who died a few years ago, said that in his boyhood the winged serpents were described as very beautiful. They were coiled when in repose, and "looked as if they were covered with jewels of all sorts. Some of them had crests sparkling with all the colours of the rainbow". When disturbed they glided swiftly, "sparkling all over," to their hiding places. When angry, they "flew over people's heads, with outspread wings, bright, and sometimes with eyes too, like the feathers in a peacock's tail". He said it was "no old story invented to frighten children", but a real fact. His father and uncle had killed some of them, for they were as bad as foxes for poultry. The old man attributed the extinction of the winged serpents to the fact that they were "terrors in the farmyards and coverts" (emphasis mine).
The Welsh description may be iridescence rather than luminescence, but I think the parallel striking. While I know too little about the Papua New Guinea story to vouch for its veracity, the lack of communication between Welsh and New Guinean witnesses concerning a pterosaur trait not otherwise recognised does give one pause.

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