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Natural History Museum’s new exhibit lets you soar with the Pterosaurs

June 30 , 2016

By Sandra Barrera

More than 66 million years ago, pterosaurs filled the skies.

The shadows of these creatures, which had huge heads and crests, passed over the coasts, forests and deserts below as visitors learn moving through the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County’s new “Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs” - the largest exhibition of its kind in the U.S.

Organized by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the show, which opens in L.A. on Sunday and runs through Oct. 2, underscores the variety that existed among these power flyers through fossil displays, life-size reconstructions and interactives like the “Fly Like a Pterosaur” game in which players use their entire body to pilot a pterosaur through flight.


“People are going to come in with this preconceived notion of a pterosaur as a kind of flying dinosaur that look the same and do the same things,” says Nathan Smith, associate curator of the NHM’s Dinosaur Institute. “I think their mind is going to be blown a little bit.”

Pterosaurs, which were mostly fuzzy and warm-blooded, appeared about 220 million years ago. They came in all shapes and sizes, from the sparrow-sized Nemicolopterus crypticus to the colossal Quetzalcoatlus northropi, which was about the size of a two-seater plane.


While some dinosaurs made it across the mass extinction event around 66 million years ago in the form of birds, pterosaurs were completely wiped out.

“With no living descendents of pterosaurs, we only have their fossil records to go on and we will never know what a lot of those diversities looked like,” says Michael Habib, a research associate with NHM’s Dinosaur Institute and the exhibition’s consulting scientist.

More than 150 species of pterosaur have been identified since the late 1700s, when Italian naturalist Cosimo Alessandro Collini described and illustrated what is considered the first discovery. Early pterosaur artists sometimes depicted these findings as penguin-like paddlers or marsupial bats. But those fun, wildly imaginative illustrations were later challenged in the 1800s by the likes of Georges Cuvier, a famous French vertebrate paleontologist and anatomist who (in addition to naming Colllini’s discovery Pteradactylus antiquus) recognized pterosaurs as reptiles that independently evolved flight.


Since then, the picture of pterosaur anatomy and diversity has continued to evolve with each new discovery.

A large diorama of a Cretaceous seascape features Thalassodromeus pterosaurs, with 14-foot wingspans, swooping down to catch fish in their toothless jaws. Elsewhere, visitors find the fossilized remains of a Pteranodon (one of several species of pterosaur) preserved 85 million years ago, with a fish in its mouth.

A cast of an exquisitely preserved fossil pterosaur egg, found in China in 2004, shows that their young were likely primed for flight soon after hatching.

It’s not yet clear if the unknown species of giant pterosaur unearthed in Romania in 2012 had the ability to fly, but the pterosaurs discovered so far most certainly did.

In addition to a short film about the basic principles of pterosaur flight and aerodynamics, visitors will find a preserved pterosaur wing revealing long muscle fibers that formed a series of stabilizing supports.

“Modern aerodynamics has a pretty good handle on how wings work,” Habib says, but the No. 1 question he gets asked isn’t about wings.


“What’s up with the heads?”

Habib doesn’t have an answer to these “flying heads” with their “extreme” crests featured on a wall of the exhibition that might leave visitors scratching their heads.

“We have a whole panel that goes into popular hypothesis over the years on the nature of the big head and in particular the crest,” he says. “But we really don’t know - so enjoy the crazy heads!”




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