Song of the Pterodactylus


John Mill

Recited by Alanna Grace Self (@Smolichthys on Twitter).

I flap my wings when the linnet sings,
             And fly through the liquid air,
And when he’s asleep in the cover deep,
             I pay him a visit there.
I hang in the tree, or swim in the sea,
             I hunt, and fowl and fish,
All kinds of game are to me the same,
             And I take whatever I wish.
Night or day, I can see my way,
             There’s no creature so blest as I,
I run and climb and fly and swim,
             And do whatever I try.
If savage claws, or hungry jaws
             Should venture to attack,
I fly away, or else in play
             Take a ride on the monster’s back.
I love the light, when in glory bright
             It bathes the earth and sea,
And the silent night is my delight,
             When I take my choicest prey.
I love the rocks, where we meet in flocks
             To have an evening’s fun,
Or watch the breeze as it rolls the seas,
             Or goes to the setting sun.

John Mill - 1854

An eerie digital painting of an evening scene, featuring a crescent mood and prehistoric plants in the background. In the foreground, the star of the portrait is a pterodactlyl that may at first glance look like it is standing on a grassy hill. Looking more closely it is actually standing on the back or neck of a long-necked sauropod dinosaur with little spines poking up along the ridge of its back. The pterodactyl is holding a tiny mammal by the tail, and has one glowing yellow eye. Another pterodactyl approaches by air.
Guest art by Joschua Knüppe (@JoschuaKnuppe on Twitter)

We chose this poem out of several fossil-themed poems featured in The Fossil Spirit: A Boy's Dream of Geology, by John Mill. This 1854 book claims to be the first book on the subject of geology aimed at a younger audience, and was inspired by John's chance encounter with an educated young man who had no knowledge on the subject.

The natural history of this poem

Pterodactylus is a member of the extinct reptile group Pterosauria, close relatives of dinosaurs who flew around during the Mesozoic Era (228-66 million years ago). Pterodactylus was the very first pterosaur ever discovered, and was exceptionally well-preserved since it was found in the Solhnolfen Limestone of Germany. “Pterodactyl” quickly became shorthand for any generic pterosaur in popular media.

The discovery of Pterodactylus was very important for the study of evolution, as its skeleton was so different from any other known animal. This poem reflects some of that early confusion, and suggests how Pterodactylus was able to fly, live in trees, and even spend time swimming in the ocean. Because Pterodactylus and pterosaurs were so strange when they were first found, many scientists thought that they were using their wings as flippers to swim in the ocean, which was thought of as the only place unknown types of animals could have lived. Later it became clear with new fossil evidence that pterosaurs’ long fingers supported a membrane of skin that was clearly used to fly. In fact, Pterodactylus means “winged finger” in Greek. They also had long, thin, hollow bones like birds, supporting the hypothesis that they were adapted for flight.

The poem also talks about Pterodactylus’ diet, saying that it could eat pretty much anything. This is still the most likely interpretation, as Pterodactylus is thought to have eaten a varied diet of any animal it could fit in its mouth. Another thing mentioned in the poem is that Pterodactylus hunts at night. This is now known to not be likely, as recent research comparing the eyes of pterosaurs with living birds and reptiles strongly suggests they spent most of their time flying and hunting during the day.  

John Mill

Content warning: mentions of racism, phrenology, colonialism

No biographical materials exist on John Mill M.D., and so most of our information comes from his published educational works. From the titles alone we can begin to understand a little bit about him and what he believed was important for a “polite education.” John’s books: Synopsis of Phrenology and The Use of Clairvoyance in Medicine are both intended to be practical guides for medical students. Phrenology and clairvoyance were popular types of pseudoscience during the 1800s, though only phrenology persists in modern research, perhaps because it is easier to believe in a field that reinforces White Supremacy than that women hold a supernatural power inaccessible to men. For more on phrenology read about Ballad of the Ichthyosaurus by May Kendall. Learning about John Mill’s pseudoscientific contributions prompted a closer read of The Fossil Spirit: A Boy’s Dream of Geology. John claims this is the first children’s book on geology ever written, and of course he believed only boys would be reading it. Within the book we also find examples of colonial language and rhetoric, for example he compares the study of a new field (geology) with the “conquering” of the Americas and includes racist descriptions of Indigenous peoples throughout the book. Any boys reading The Fossil Spirit were fed this racism and colonial supremacy alongside their geological education. This type of instruction, one that combines pro-colonial and racist attitudes with scientific teachings, intrinsically ties harmful ideologies with science in a way that can be difficult for readers to pick apart, especially at a young age and if the ideologies were being reinforced by other sources such as parents and teachers.