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Pterosaurs Take To The Skies Of New York City

While dinosaurs might’ve ruled the earth millions of years ago, pterosaurs were ruling the skies at the same time. And these flying reptiles get the royal treatment in the American Museum of Natural History’s new exhibit “Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs.”

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Dawndraco kanzai was one of the largest pterosaurs ever to take to the skies, and soared over a sea that covered what is now the American Great Plains. Image credit: AMNH

For more than a century, scientists’ knowledge of pterosaurs has been much scantier compared to what we know about their dinosaur cousins. One of the problems, according to Mark Norrell, curator of the exhibit and chair of the AMNH’s paleontology division, is a simple lack of fossils. When working in the Gobi desert, “We’d find one pterosaur bone among thousands” of other fossils, Norrell told reporters on Tuesday.

Pterodactylus fossil
The cast of a fossil of a young Pterodactylus antiquus, found in layers of limestone near Solnhofen, Germany. The pterosaur was embedded in very fine silt, which preserved the skeleton with sharp detail. Image credit: AMNH/C. Chesek

But now, the field of pterosaur research is undergoing something of a renaissance, thanks to the discovery of two rich new sites for finding pterosaur fossils: Brazil and China. In Northeastern China—prime pterosaur hunting territory, Norrell says—researchers often find soft tissue impressions preserved in fossils, yielding glimpses of their ornate crests and the filamentous parts of pterosaur wings.

Quetzalcoatlus northopi
Quetzalcoatlus northropi. Image credit: AMNH

The AMNH exhibit features rare pterosaur fossils and reproductions from across the world, along with an array of illustrative models and interactive exhibits. Vistors will encounter all the diversity within the pterosaur group, from those as small as a sparrow (Nemicolopterus crypticus, with a wingspan of 10 inches), to behemoths as large as a two-seater Cessna plane (Tropeognathus mesembrinus, with a 25-foot wingspan and Quetzalcoatlus northropi, with a 33-foot wingspan). And if you grew up thinking of pterosaurs as simple pterodactyls, you’ll be wowed by Pterodaustro guinazui, a flamingo-like flying reptile that sports a comb-like jaw lined with hundreds of tiny teeth, all the better to scoop little creatures out of the water for a meal.

Fly like a pterosaur at the museum!
Take to the skies as a pterosaur at this motion-capture video game station. Image credit: AMNH/D. Finnin

One of the features in the exhibit that’s sure to be a hit with kids and playful adults alike is the station where you can “pilot” a virtual pterosaur using motion-sending technology. You step on a pad and flap your arms, crouch and lean, while your pterosaurian avatar flaps, dives, and banks in response. It’s incredibly cool – and a good tricep workout too, if you’re looking for that sort of thing.

Recognizing pterosaurs as their own kind of creature is the key to understanding them, according to Michael Habib, a University of Southern California neurobiologist and biomechanist who consulted for the exhibit.

“If you model them as glorified birds or bats, you don’t get very accurate answers,” Habib says. Pterosaurs were the first animals to perfect powered flight, and they did it in a way that’s totally unique to their anatomy and era. Whereas bat wings incorporate elongated fingers connected by webbed skin and birds innovated feathers, the pterosaur’s wing is suspended from an extra-long ring finger (hence the origin of “pterodactyl,” or “wing-finger”).

The exhibit is open until January 4, 2015 during normal museum hours; you can get more information here.

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This really is the most complete exhibit on pterosaurs ever developed," Mark Norell, chairman and curator of the museum's paleontology division, told the Daily News. "We looked at all aspects of pterosaurs.