Nfld. & Labrador

A pterosaur in the iron ore? A century later, this Bell Island legend lives on

CBC investigates claims of a pterodactyl fossil found in a mine shaft 115 years ago.

'I strongly doubt that they found one,' says paleontologist Doug Boyce

This is a model of Quetzalcoatlus, the largest known pterosaur. The Bell Island legend does not specify which species was discovered. The fossil is referred to as a pterodactyl, though there were many different kinds of flying reptiles millions of years ago. (Alina Zienowicz, cc-by-sa-3.0)

It's a tale that has captivated imaginations on Bell Island for more than 100 years, passed down through generations but impossible to verify.

It all started back in 1904, so the story goes. Miners were drilling and blasting, constructing a tunnel in an iron ore mine.

That's when they spotted it, practically under their feet.

"It was a fossil and it was of a pterodactyl," said Bonnie Spracklin, a tour guide at the Bell Island Heritage Society.

Spracklin said the specimen was more than eight metres long. The miners dug it out of the ground and laid the pieces on the floor of a parish hall.

Evidence lost 

From there, the fossil soon disappeared. Its whereabouts remain a mystery 115 years later.  

"I've heard several stories," Spracklin said. "Whether they're true or not, I cannot tell you."

Some Bell Islanders believe the fossil is buried under what is now a bakery, the tour guide explained. Others believe that miners tossed it over a cliff, fearing that a paleontological investigation would shut down the mine and leave them jobless.

Part of the Bell Island mine has been turned into a museum and tourist attraction. According to local lore, the fossil was discovered as miners were constructing a tunnel like this one. (Fred Hutton/CBC)

Despite any physical evidence, the legend lingers, bolstered in part by the late Rev. John Hammond of Bell Island, who wrote about the pterodactyl in one of his many historical tomes, Spracklin said.  

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are no known photos of the finding, according to the heritage society's executive director, Teresita McCarthy.

Not so fast

"I strongly doubt that they found [a pterodactyl] but since we can't actually see it, there's no definitive answer," said paleontologist Doug Boyce.

The rocks that make up Bell Island were formed some 270 million years before pterodactyls existed, Boyce explained.

Amateur paleontologist Isadora Barnes of Conception Bay South has a collection of trilobite fossils that she dug up herself. Paleontologist Doug Boyce says trilobites produced 'trace fossils' in their trails as they burrowed. He guesses that's what the miners on Bell Island found in 1904. (Submitted photo)

"The only chance for a pterodactyl to be found is if there was some crevice or ravine and it fell into it, but I doubt that's the case."

McCarthy suggests that is precisely what happened. In fact, in her retelling of the story, the pterodactyl had a broken wing, perhaps the result of falling from the sky or becoming wedged between rocks.

Pterodactyl vs. trilobite 

While Boyce is quite certain those miners didn't find a pterodactyl, he says the specimen likely was a fossil.

His best guess is that trilobites are responsible.

Trilobites are on display at the American Museum of Natural History. These ancient arthropods left trails and tracks as they burrowed through the earth millions of years ago. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

The ancient arthropods, which look a little like modern woodlice, otherwise known in Newfoundland and Labrador as carpenters, left tracks as they burrowed through the earth on Bell Island, Boyce explained.

Those tracks are known as trace fossils.

"Bell Island is world-famous for its trace fossils, and I'm thinking that it might possibly have been a fortuitous alignment of different trails or burrows, so it might have looked like bone material."

McCarthy is undeterred, but good-natured toward detractors.

"We say it's a pterodactyl," she laughed. "That's our story and we're sticking to it."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show


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