This Latin inscription on this his curious beast identifies it as a "dragon as it was recovered in the hands of the engineer Cornelius Meyer". The picture comes from a 1696 book that Meyer wrote describing his construction projects, and an etching on the cover claims to show the dragon as it looked alive in 1691, stalking the marshes near Rome.
In the minds of "young Earth" creationists, Meyer's dragon has evolved far beyond an engineer's flight of fancy. They claim it's clearly a pterosaur - proving that, far from being extinct for the last 150 million years, the flying dinosaur was alive and kicking in 1691. They have even identified it as Scaphognathus, a pterosaur that scientists believe lived in what is now Germany. The first fossils were discovered in 1831, embedded in the limestone beds like those that later yielded archaeopteryx.
Medieval artists depicted many types of dragons, but Meyer's drawing is detailed enough to analyse and identify the bones, says palaeontologist Phil Senter of Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. He and an undergraduate student decided to tackle the task of identifying the remains, and have now published their results.
Sadly for creationists and dinosaur-loving dreamers everywhere, the beast was, of course, a fake, cobbled together from animal parts and fancifully sculpted fabrications The skull and jaw came from different dogs, the ribs from a fish, and the hind limb is the arm of a bear.
"Ostensible skin hides the junctions between the parts of different animals," Senter says. "The tail is a sculpted fake. The wings are fake and lack diagnostic traits of bat wings and pterosaur wings. No part of the skeleton resembles its counterpart in pterosaurs."
Composite taxidermy monsters were common in late medieval times - the great Carl Linnaeus made himself unpopular in Hamburg after he deemed the mayor's stuffed hydra to be a fake. Meyer's stitched-together composite apparently was good enough to fool people in the 17th century, who were predisposed to believe in dragons because local myths held that dragons lived in swamps.
Senter speculates that Meyer assembled the fake to persuade Roman residents that the local dragon was safely dead so it could not be annoyed by his newly built dam. He surely had no idea that his hoax would live on for more than three centuries.