The first non-insect animal to evolve powered flight wasn’t the bird, but a fuzzy reptile called the pterosaur. These animals ruled Mesozoic skies for 150 million years, soaring above the dinosaurs. Now, they’re coming to New York.
The American Museum of Natural History is launching its Pterosaurs: Flight In The Age Of Dinosaurs exhibit on April 5. We got a preview of the exhibit before it opens and here’s what we learned about these strange animals.
Pterosaurs are a group of flying reptiles made up of at least 150 species. They varied immensely in size and appearance, as shown in the GIF below. Pterosaurs were anywhere from the size of a bird to the size of a small plane. Some were even as pink as a flamingo.
They went mysteriously extinct with the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, but their closest living relatives, the crocodile and the bat, still remain.
When the first pterosaurs appeared 220 million years ago, they were seagull-sized. In the GIF below, you can see they had long tails, small heads, and short limbs.
As time went on, larger species started appearing. The later pterosaurs had longer heads and necks, shorter tails, and longer limbs from standing on the ground. You can see these in the GIF below.
Some pterosaurs even developed elaborate head crests, like Thalassodromeus sethi, seen below. This pterosaur had the largest head crest of any known vertebrate and a 14 foot wingspan. Sethi lived in modern day Brazil.
The skull of Nyctosaurus, seen below, had two giant prongs jutting from its head. These prongs were nearly as long as its entire body and were three times as long as its head.
Scientists debate whether the two bones were connected by a soft tissue or remained bare like antlers.
One Pterosaur, Quetzalcoatlus northropi, is the largest known flying animal. This species, shown in the GIF below, lived in current day western Texas. Northropi had an over 30-foot wingspan and was named after the Mexican god of air, Quetzalcoatl.
The Pterosaur exhibit displays a lifesize version of northropi hanging in the “Flight Lab” section of the exhibit.
In order to coax their big bodies into flight, these creatures evolved adaptations like hollow bones and an elongated fourth finger to support a wing. Some developed rudder-like tail fins. Flying likely allowed the creature to increase its range for food and mate selection.
The museum also features a “Fly Like A Pterosaur Exhibit” which uses motion sensors to let visitors control a pterosaur avatar.
When pterosaurs weren’t airborn, they walked on the ground on all fours, like the little guy below. Fossilized tracks, on exhibit in the museum, helped paleontologists reconstruct how these creatures walked.
Check out the American Museum of Natural History’s Pterosaur: Flight In The Age Of Dinosaurs exhibit opening April 5
*All visuals and information courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.
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