Jul 22, 2016 I Brent Swancer

Mysterious Living Dinosaurs of the Wild West

One very exciting area of cryptozoology is that of apparent dinosaurs which have somehow survived up right up to the present day. What could be more fantastic than having real dinosaurs still prowling the wild places of the world, as they did millions of years ago? Such mysterious creatures can be found in many reports from the deepest darkest jungles of Africa to the rainforests of South America, yet one does not necessarily have to go so far away to such isolated, inaccessible spots to find accounts of supposed living dinosaurs in the modern age. In the southwestern United States, especially the rural, Four Corners region comprised of the southwestern corner of Colorado, southeastern corner of Utah, northeastern corner of Arizona, and northwestern corner of New Mexico, there have long been reports of dinosaurian beasts roaming about the badlands here, apparently very much alive and well.

Tales of dinosaurs in the American southwest go back to the frontier Wild West days of cowboys and Indians. Among some of the most talked about and famous of the dinosaurs of the West are the various large, pterodactyl-type creatures said to have been sighted throughout the 1800s and beyond, and which were already known to the Native peoples of the region as “Thunderbirds.” One such account was reported from the town of Tombstone, Arizona, a historic boomtown most famous for its Gunfight Behind the O.K. Corral in 1881, and is pretty much everything one imagines when thinking of a dusty old west town out of a Western flick.

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Tombstone, Arizona

Besides gunfights, cowboys, saloons, and a once thriving silver industry, the town was also the location for one of the stranger and oft discussed accounts of cryptozoology. The Tombstone Epitaph on April 26, 1890 included a case of a rather curious encounter. The article details the fantastic account of some sort of huge, winged creature which was found by two ranchers in the desert region between the Whetstone and Huachuca mountains. The monstrous thing was said to look somewhat like an alligator with an elongated tail and a set of massive, bat-like wings. When it was found, the creature was allegedly exhausted, and only capable of short bursts of flight.

The two curious ranchers then were said to have pursued the strange creature for several miles on horseback as it took to the air to retreat in short, sporadic flights, occasionally getting within range to unleash upon it with their rifles and wounding it in the process. At one point, the injured monster apparently turned on the men in aggression and defiance, at which point they were able to shoot it dead. Afterwards, the ranchers claimed to have measured it and found the body to be roughly 92 feet in length, with two feet that were joined to the body just under massive wings that were awkwardly folded under the body. When the wings had been properly stretched out they were said to be around 160 feet in diameter from tip to tip, and the enormous head of the beast was reported as measuring 8 feet long, with strong jaws filled with formidable, sharp teeth and eyes the size of “dinner plates.” The wings were apparently covered by some sort of thin membrane, and the whole body covered with rather thin, almost translucent skin without hair or feathers.

The ranchers reportedly chopped off a portion of one of the creature’s wings to take with them, after which they supposedly made arrangements to have the beast skinned and examined by scientists. It is unclear if that ever happened or not. The article simply ends on a note of excitement about what will be uncovered, but nothing is really known about what happened after this rather amazing story or what became of the alleged carcass.


This account has drawn a fair amount of criticism, not only because of the sheer, ludicrous size description of the thing, but also because it seems like a story tailor-made to bring in tourists and money to the town. At the time, the once prosperous Tombstone had fallen on hard times due to the flooding of several of the silver mines that were the town’s lifeblood, and they were no doubt desperate to put their ailing town back on the map, so a sensational story of fantastic giant flying dinosaurs might have been one way to do it. The fact that such an amazing tale, which would have taken the scientific world by storm, was not mentioned in any of the other local newspapers, nor any apparent photograph taken of it, just makes the whole thing more suspicious. There was also the habit of papers of the time to generously exaggerate stories or even make them up entirely.

The bizarre story would not end there, and would indeed evolve into one of cryptozoology’s great mysteries. In 1966, after decades of debate as to the authenticity of the story of the “Tombstone Pterodactyl,” a writer by the name of Jack Pearl claimed that there was indeed a photo of the Tombstone creature, or at least one very much like it, which had been published in another article in the Tombstone Epitaph in 1886. The article allegedly said that a group of prospectors had carted the dead monster into town and pinned it to a barn wall for a photo. The picture apparently shows six men standing with arms outstretched before the winged beast, and its size estimated to be around 36 feet from wingtip to wingtip.

The story of this photo’s existence was corroborated by writer H.M. Cranmer in a 1963 article in Fate Magazine, and renowned cryptozoologist Ivan Sanderson claimed that he had actually owned a photocopy of the photo but that it had been lost. From there, the legend of the now notorious “Thunderbird Photo” really took off. People began to come out of the woodwork swearing they had seen the photo on TV, in books, or in magazines, but in every case no actual copy could ever be tracked down. The question of the elusive photo’s existence became a popular topic within the realms of cryptozoology and Forteana, inciting heated debate and speculation, and the search for the lost photo became sort of a Holy Grail within the field.

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One of many photos said to be similar to what the Thunderbird photo would be like

In depth investigations into the claims of the photo being printed in the Tombstone Epitaph were carried out, yet looking back deeply into the newspaper’s archives showed that no such picture was ever published and there had been no follow up article. Others searched all editions of various books in which people had sworn they had seen the photo, but it turned out that no such photo had ever been published in any of them. Some people have sworn that the picture was most certainly in a particular book, only to find that the photo was gone when they looked there. Over the years photos have been occasionally brought forward and claimed to be the supposed lost Thunderbird photo, but none of them seem to be exactly what was described in the original or what people insisted they remembered seeing.

So what is going on here? How can so many people vividly and irresistibly remember seeing this photograph, so adamantly convinced that it is real, yet be totally unable to find a copy or any proof whatsoever of its actual existence? All kinds of theories have been thrown around trying to explain how so many people could remember seeing a photo that seemed to not exist, ranging from the rational to the decidedly fringe. One idea is that it is simply a mass false memory, or a shared memory instigated and propagated through the power of suggestion, while more far-out ideas postulate time warps, time travelers stealing the copies or even preventing it from ever being taken, as well as the notion of the photo somehow erasing itself from reality. The lost Tombstone Thunderbird photograph remains a persistent and compelling mystery and subject of debate, and there are those who continue to doggedly search for it.

Whether the photo ever really existed or not, there were certainly a lot of reports of flying, pterodactyl-type creatures during the era. From 1881 to 1886 the Elizabeth Lake area of California was the scene of a rash of sightings of a strange, dinosaurian flying creature that was described as having immense, leathery wings, disproportionately large eyes, and carrying a pungent stench with it that was said to smell like that of a skunk, only stronger. The creature was often reported as swooping and diving into the water to emerge with fish in its mouth. One rancher by the name of Don Chico Lopez claimed to have seen an enormous flying monster with bat-like wings fly forth from underwater to come exploding through the surface, and also said that his livestock had been mysteriously disappearing, prompting him to ultimately move away from the area. The next rancher to live there, a Miguel Leonis, also had an unusual encounter there, when he claimed to have seen a “griffin-like” beast majestically flying over the lake. Indeed, Native Americans had a rich folklore of the huge, bird-like creatures known as Thunderbirds, so could these tales be linked somehow?

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Eyewitness reports of alleged living pterodactyls in the American southwest have occasionally been made right up to the present day. In 2011 a strange creature was reported from a man in Phoenix, Arizona, who claimed that he had seen a large, bird-like creature with no feathers, leathery wings, and a “thing coming out the back of its head,” swoop down to land and splash about on the surface of a river. In 2012, another witness claimed to have seen what appeared to be a baby pterodactyl under a bridge in Tucson, Arizona. The winged creature was said to have a wingspan of around 8 feet, and to be covered in whitish fur, with a head sporting a “top knot” that appeared to be molting. The strange creature was apparently quite aggressive towards the intruders, spreading its wings, hissing, and assuming an attack stance.

Pterodactyls are not the only type of dinosaur said to roam the American southwest. From Colorado have long come reports of bipedal, lizard-like creatures said to be similar to Therapod dinosaurs and measuring around 3.5 ft. (1 meter) tall and between 5 feet (1.5 meters) to 7 feet long (2 meters) long. They are usually described as having very prominent, powerful hind legs and two smaller appendages instead of forelegs. These mysterious creatures are often collectively referred to as “Mini T. Rexes,” or “River Dinos,” and also “River Lizards,” due to their apparent habit of lurking in wet environments near water.

One man in Pueblo, Colorado told the North American Bio Fortean Review about his own experiences with the River Lizards. He claimed that he had been out riding dirt bikes with a friend when they noticed a strange creature moving through the clearing ahead of them. It was described it as being a reptilian creature of some kind, around 4 feet long and greenish in color with black markings on its back and orange coloring on its underbelly, and which walked swiftly on its hind legs without dragging its tail. The man explained that the front legs of the creature were significantly shorter than the hind legs and had three or four claws. He also recalled that it had a kind of “lump” or “horn” over each eye, and that it let out a loud, high pitched shriek when it saw them. The man allegedly went back to his house for a camera to take pictures of its tracks, and further claimed that another friend had taken photos of the exact same creature he had seen. These photos were subsequently sent to cryptozoologist Chad Arment, but they are of low quality, blurry, and could be merely cheap dinosaur models for anyone can tell.

Other photos of the River Dinos have cropped up over the years as well. Perhaps the most famous of these is a photo, also sent to Chad Arment, showing an unidentified man holding a rifle in one hand and what appears to be a small, dead bipedal dinosaur in the other. It is unknown exactly when or where the mysterious photo was taken, except that it is “somewhere in Colorado.” This mysterious photo has generated quite a bit of debate, and there are some who believe it to be evidence of living dinosaurs, yet most think that it is likely a hoax created with a particularly realistic looking toy dinosaur. Considering there is very little information on the origins of the photo, and that Arment has been unsuccessful in tracking down the one who originally sent it, we will probably never know for sure.

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The photo of the dead River Dino: Real or fake?

Another witness named Shannon Ystesund saw something similar near Yellow Jacket, Colorado in 2001, and shared her story with cryptozoologist and researcher Nick Sucik, who has spent years investigating and collecting reports of living dinosaurs in North America, and wrote a whole chapter devoted to the subject in Chad Arment’s 2006 book, Cryptozoology and the Investigation of Lesser-Known Mystery Animals. She claimed that she had been driving with her daughter when something ran out in front of them, which they at first took to be a deer. They braked the car and it soon became apparent that this was certainly no deer. The creature was described as standing around 3 feet tall and having a long, slender neck and skinny, bird-like legs, as well as small arms that seemed to come poking out of its neck rather than its body. There was also a long, tapered tail mentioned, and the total length of the creature was estimated as being around 5 feet.

The creature was described as gracefully running on two legs. Although it seemed bird-like in many respects, the creature had no feathers, and the woman described it as looking like a “cross between a bird and a dinosaur.” They were convinced that they had seen a miniature dinosaur of some sort, and immediately went home to excitedly tell their families about it. Ystesund said of the incident:

It was a Jurassic Park flashback. I mean I was—I couldn't believe it. We were, you know, freaked out. Immediately we thought it was some kind of dinosaur or a huge lizard. So we came home. Looked like the little dinosaurs in Jurassic Park that surrounded everybody in the tall grass fields.


One resident of Pagosa Springs, Colorado named Myrtle Snow has claimed that she has seen these small dinosaurs on many occasions over the course of her life. She claims the first sighting was when she was a young girl in the 1930s, during which time she saw five baby bipedal dinosaurs, after which a local farmer apparently shot a larger one measuring 7 feet long that same month in the wake of a series of deadly attacks by a mystery predator on his sheep. Allegedly, the dead creature was stored in a barn, where it was viewed by many of the curious local farmers and ranchers. The creature was said to be grayish in color, with a head like a snake, a long, powerful tail, pronounced and muscular hind legs, and short forelegs that resembled “chicken’s feet.” Snow, who claims that she saw the body herself, said it was covered in fine, grey hairs.

The carcass was allegedly put on ice and shipped to the Denver Museum, but further investigation by Sucik turned up no official records of ever receiving such a specimen. Interestingly, the very same museum had at one point received some skeletons purportedly from miniature dinosaurs captured during the 1960s in the southwest, but these turned out to be a hoax, merely the bones of several known animals cleverly arranged to make them seem mysterious. In addition to these tales, Snow then went on in later years to spot one such creature running along the road while she was driving, and says she saw yet another one in a cave, which was greenish in color. She related several of these experiences in a letter to the Rocky Mountain Empire Magazine in 1982.

Such bipedal raptor-type “dinosaurs” have been seen in other states throughout the southwest as well. In April of 1996 a woman in Mesa Verde, California, claimed to have seen such a creature literally in her own yard. She reported that she had been sitting at home when she looked out the front door and saw a large lizard around 3 1/2 feet long and 3 1/2 feet high, which stood on two legs and moved very quickly toward a nearby pond. The strange creature allegedly had a 2-foot long tail and a cone shaped nose. The intrigued woman wasn’t quite sure what she had seen, and when she checked a reference book of reptiles of the area she could find nothing that even remotely resembled it.


In another case from the state of Arizona uncovered by Sucik, a couple from Cortez, Colorado, were visiting when they came across a bizarre smallish bipedal lizard that they said looked almost like a dinosaur toy, until it moved. A particularly dramatic account, while not taking place in the west, is that of a group of boys who in 1981 claimed to have captured and subsequently released a 2-foot long “baby dinosaur” near some railway tracks in New Kensington, Pennsylvania. The odd creature was described as being bright green and possessing a very long tail and a “crest” on its head.

This would not be the first time such a creature had been reportedly captured. One family claimed that in the late 1930s, as they were in the process of travelling out further west to follow the crops, a curious creature which looked like a “mini-T. rex” would approach their camp as they cooked. The creature came skulking around the camp for several days straight and on one such occasion the father supposedly managed to capture it alive. They then kept it in a birdcage and fed it food scraps. The tiny dinosaur was described as having small but very sharp teeth “like a kitten,” sharp hooks on its hands, and scaly skin that was reportedly warm to the touch unlike a usual reptile’s. The creature was purportedly mostly tame and not prone to biting or scratching, but it supposedly did not like to be held. The family alleged that they had kept it as a pet for a time until it grew too large for its cage, after which it was released. As it ran away, they noticed that it "flattened out, stretched its head out front, tail out back and was really fast."


These reports of bipedal living dinosaurs in the American West are so numerous that some states even have their own, unique variations. Oklahoma has reports of such beasts prowling its grasslands, where they are referred to as “Oklahoma Raptors,” and Texas has its own, larger version called the Mountain Boomer, which are said to lurk mostly in the rugged mountain wilderness of the Big Bend region, near Big Bend National Park. The Mountain Boomers are said to stand between 5 to 7 feet tall and look like a miniature T. rex, with a bipedal gait, long tapered tail, powerful hind legs, and tiny fore legs tipped with sharp claws. Some reports mention large flaps of skin above and below the head, and the creature is said to sometimes emit a low, booming howl which has been described as sounding like a rumbling distant thunder. These creatures are said to be mostly shy and elusive, but one report from the early 1970s claimed that one actually ran a car off of the road.

Judging by the history of such dinosaur sightings over such a vast area, one might get the impression that southwestern North America is literally crawling with such creatures; a real life Jurassic Park. What could these people possibly be seeing? There have been a lot of theories put forward on what could be at the heart of such sightings. One is that these are simply exaggerated misidentifications of known animals. For River Dinos it could be exotic escaped pet lizards or large monitor lizards, but these are not bipedal, which is a shared trait among all of the alleged sightings. There is also the possibility that people are seeing bipedal birds such as roadrunners, or the ever popular escaped emu or ostrich theory, yet the reports are very universal in their insistence that these mystery beasts have no feathers. Another idea is that we are dealing with some new species of bipedal lizard, along the lines of some species of lizard that display occasional bipedal locomotion during bursts of speed, only much larger. Interestingly, although the coloration and sizes often vary, the general appearance of these “River Dinos” or “Mini T. rexes” is remarkably similar across the board.


For the pterodactyls it could be misidentifications of large birds or bats that have been greatly misestimated in size. It has been argued that things in the sky, without an object for a direct size comparison, can be misconstrued as being larger or smaller than it really is and that this may be behind the sightings. Unfortunately this does not explain the sightings made close to the ground or some of the odder details of the creatures’ appearance. It certainly would not explain the Tombstone Thunderbird carcass, if such a thing ever existed.

It must be kept in mind, of course, the possibility that at least some of these reports are completely fabricated, and that the similarity in descriptions is simply due to the popular image of what a dinosaur should look like. Unfortunately, this ends up being one of the most damning strikes against the credibility of such reports. The common notion of what dinosaurs looked like is largely formed by what is depicted in the movies, and in many ways these physical appearances, as well as the way they are shown to move or the sounds they make, are most likely inaccurate.

For instance, many of these smaller bipedal dinosaurs that the common image sees as smooth and scaly are actually now thought to have been covered in feathers, so what does that say of eyewitnesses who insist that the creatures were not feathered, and rather cling to the popular, wrong Hollywood image of what they think dinosaurs looked like? The booming, ferocious roar we envision dinos making is also likely inaccurate, as recent research had found that many of them, including the fearsome T. rex, more likely cooed or mumbled through closed mouths rather than unleash the massive roar we are familiar with from the movies, making something like the Mountain Boomer with its thunderous wail seem a bit odd. This disconnect between what dinosaurs were actually like and what people think they were like thanks to movies, plus the fact that the sightings always describe the latter, certainly gives one pause when considering whether the reports could be actual dinosaurs or not.

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More like what a velociraptor would actually look like

There is also a glaring, almost complete lack of any real evidence, even circumstantial, besides the eyewitness reports. One wonders where all of the tracks are, and why there aren’t more purported photos besides the very, very few that are questionable at best and clearly faked at worst. The only photo that might possibly be any good is the one of the Tombstone Thunderbird, if we could see it or indeed find it or even know it existed at all. It seems that considering the history of sightings of pterodactyl and mini T. rex type dinosaurs going back all the way to the Wild West days, as well as the number of reports over such a large area, that we would have found at least something. Instead, we are left with mere amazing accounts and a handful of poor photos. It is meager by any cryptid's standards. If some sort of living dinosaur or new species of large, bipedal lizard is out there, then we seem to be very far from ever confirming it. It does not necessarily mean that they don’t exist, just that this total void of potential evidence, coupled with the sheer audacity of the claims, seems to hamper the credibility of the notion, even among cryptozoologists.

So do dinosaurs similar to pterodactyls, velociraptors, and T. rexes roam the wilds of the American Southwest? It is a tantalizing, even romantic idea to be sure, while at the same time almost seemingly absurd. Yet what of the rich history of sightings and folklore of these alleged creatures? With so many accounts, it seems that something is going on, whether it is living dinosaurs or not. Is this all misidentifications of known animals? A new species? A complete farce? Or are there really dinosaurs surviving into the present day right under our noses? It is hard to say. One thing that is certain is that it seems one does not have to go to the deepest jungles of Africa or South America to find reports of dinosaurs still roaming the earth.

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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