Take the Train: Pterosaurs at the Natural History Museum

A gallery display illustrates the incredible variety of pterosaur crests—from a dagger-shaped blade that juts from the head to a giant, sail-like extension. Photo ©AMNH/D. Finnin

A gallery display illustrates the incredible variety of pterosaur crests—from a dagger-shaped blade that juts from the head to a giant, sail-like extension. Photo ©AMNH/D. Finnin

If it’s been decades since you wandered the halls of our Natural History Museum in Exposition Park, as it was for me, now might be a great time to reacquaint yourself.  If you’ve never been there, you’ll find a corner of Los Angeles you might not have imagined.  Of course, if you’re a regular visitor, get on down there!  A great new exhibit has just opened, and light rail stops right outside the front door.  I was delighted to discover that the Natural History Museum is better than ever, clean and surrounded by lovely gardens…a perfect place for couples and families to stroll and admire the wonders of SCIENCE.

The current exhibition at the Natural History Museum shows you everything you could want to know about PTEROSAURS, the dinosaur cousins who ruled the skies of Earth for millions of years.  For folks of my generation, our first vision of a pterosaur might have been the ones that soar out of Bedrock Airport in “The Flintstones,” Jonny Quest and his friends being attacked by Turu the Terrible, and of course, Raquel Welch nearly being fed to a nest full of young ones in “One Million Years B.C.”  You youngsters are probably more familiar with the friendly Pteranodon family on “Dinosaur Train.”  But the pterosaurs were not cartoons; they were creatures who lived over many ages and evolved into a surprising variety of forms, many of which are on display in this exhibition.  I still see these creatures alive today, every time my sister’s parrots squawk or sink their talons into my flesh!

The exhibition is divided into three large rooms, each with modern, interactive panels that you can explore at leisure, or you can just walk through and marvel at the many fossils, re-assembled skeletons and even fully re-created pterosaurs in dioramas or suspended from the ceiling.  Besides the amazing re-creations of these creatures, one of my favorite parts of the exhibition was “Fly Like a Pterosaur,” several large screens facing a motion-sensing pad, where you can stand, flap your arms, and become one of several species of pterosaurs, soaring over an ancient landscape and even diving for fish.

And don’t forget to enjoy the rest of our Natural History Museum, with hundreds of dinosaurs, ancient mammals, the lovely Gem and Mineral collection, a great exhibit on the history of Los Angeles, including the 1939 WPA model of Downtown, the Insect Zoo, the wonderful dioramas of the Mammal Halls that were part of so many childhoods, and much more.  Last but not least, I was pleased to discover that the Natural History Museum now has one of the best native gardens in the county; it’s worth the price of admission just to see all the kinds of plants you can grow locally that flourish in our climate, and the variety of native bugs they attract.

The pterosaur exhibition is open now for members, and will open to the public from Sunday, 3 July until October.  Enjoy!

For those who want the full story, here’s an edited version of the Museum’s official press release:

Los Angeles, CA, July 1, 2016 – This summer, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM) will present the largest exhibition in the United Sates dedicated to exploring these incredibly diverse winged reptiles—and the first back-boned animals to evolve powered flight—known as pterosaurs.  On view in Los Angeles from July 3 through October 2, 2016, Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs highlights the latest research of museum scientists and leading paleontologists, extremely rare pterosaur fossils, and displays about discoveries in Italy, Germany, China, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Brazil, as well as life-size models, videos, and interactive exhibits to immerse visitors in the mechanics of pterosaur flight.  The exhibit is complemented by NHM’s own impressive collection of pterosaurs, which includes rare trackways and the giant crested Pteranodon longiceps on display in the Jane G. Pisano Dinosaur Hall mezzanine.  This exhibition is organized by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), and will underscore the vast and newly revealed variation among these ancient creatures, which ranged from the size of a sparrow to a two-seater plane, as well as how they evolved to dominate the sky when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

“This exhibition represents a remarkable moment in the wonderfully rich, vital area of pterosaur research and discovery,” said Lori Bettison-Varga, NHM President and Director. “We are delighted to partner with our East Coast colleagues at the American Museum of Natural History to bring to life these fascinating flying creatures, both through discoveries of rare prehistoric specimens and today’s cutting-edge technology. We look forward to working together with the global scientific community to learn more about this exciting group of reptiles as new information continues to unfold.”

“Despite persistently captivating our popular imagination, pterosaurs are among the least well-understood large animals from the age of dinosaurs,” said Ellen V. Futter, AMNH President. “In the past decade, however, there has been an explosion of pterosaur research and new fossil discoveries including by scientists at the AMNH and the exhibition’s curatorial team. Showcasing scientifically accurate information, this exhibition presents these fascinating winged reptiles, compares them to both dinosaurs of yesteryear and modern day birds and bats, and explores the biomechanics of pterosaur flight.”

Despite popular misconceptions, pterosaurs were not dinosaurs, although the two groups are closely related. In fact, these flying reptiles were the first vertebrate animals to evolve powered flight, diversifying into more than 150 species of all shapes and sizes spreading across the planet over a period of 150 million years until they went extinct 66 million years ago.  There was amazing variation among pterosaurs, as visitors will discover upon entering the gallery to encounter full-size models of one of the largest and one of the smallest pterosaur species ever found: the colossal Tropeognathus mesembrinus, with a wingspan of more than 25 feet, soaring overhead and the sparrow-size Nemicolopterus crypticus, with a wingspan of 10 inches, displayed nearby.  When pterosaurs first appeared more than 220 million years ago, the earliest species were about the size of a modern seagull, but the group evolved into an array of species ranging from pint-size to truly gargantuan, including species that were the largest flying animals ever to have existed. Later on in the exhibition, visitors can marvel at a full-size model of a 33-foot-wingspan Quetzalcoatlus northropi—the largest pterosaur species known to date—and the fossil remains of a giant pterosaur unearthed in Romania just a few years ago, which point to a new species that was even stronger and heavier than Quetzalcoatlus.

Several interactive exhibits help visitors see the world from a pterosaur’s-eye view. In “Fly Like a Pterosaur,” visitors can “pilot” two species of flying pterosaurs over prehistoric landscapes complete with forest, sea, and volcano in a whole-body interactive exhibit that uses motion-sensing technology. For a different perspective on flight, visitors will also be able to experiment with the principles of pterosaur aerodynamics in an interactive virtual wind tunnel that responds to the movements of their hands.

Five iPad stations offer visitors the inside scoop on different pterosaur species—Pteranodon, Tupuxuara, Pterodaustro, Jeholopterus, and Dimorphodon—with animations of pterosaurs flying, walking, eating, and displaying crests; multi-layered interactives that allow users to explore pterosaur fossils, behavior, and anatomy; and video clips featuring commentary from curators and other experts.

Other exhibition fossils and specimens offer additional clues about how pterosaurs lived and behaved. These include Sordes pilosus, the first species to show that pterosaurs had a fuzzy coat and were probably warm-blooded, just like birds and bats, and even some dinosaurs. A gallery display illustrates the incredible variety of pterosaur crests—from the dagger-shaped blade that juts from the head of Pteranodon longiceps to the giant, sail-like extension of Tupandactylus imperator. Visitors can consider the many theories scientists have about how crests might have been used: for species recognition, sexual selection, heat regulation, steering through the air, or some combination of these functions.

Pterosaurs likely lived in a range of habitats. But pterosaur fossils were most easily preserved near water, so almost all species known today lived along a coast. The exhibition features a large diorama showing a re-creation of a dramatic Cretaceous seascape based entirely on fossil evidence and located at the present-day Araripe Basin in northeast Brazil. Two Thalassodromeus pterosaurs with impressive 14-foot wingspans swoop down to catch Rhacolepis fish in their toothless jaws, while a much larger Cladocyclus fish chases a school of Rhacolepis up to the surface. In the background, visitors will see an early crocodyliform and a spinosaurid dinosaur, which shared the habitat with pterosaurs.

For a complete list of Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs programs and events at NHM visit nhm.org.

Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs is organized by the American Museum of Natural History, New York (www.amnh.org).

Joel J. Rane

About Joel J. Rane

Now I'm at work, now I'm at home, now I'm asleep, let's wake up and write something.
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2 Responses to Take the Train: Pterosaurs at the Natural History Museum

  1. Don’t forget about Pee Wee Herman’s friend Pterry. And what is the deal with pterodactyls?

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