NEW YORK—The Jurassic Period wasn’t just about dinosaurs. Existing at that same time were pterosaurs, winged reptiles that were neither dinosaurs nor birds, but looked a bit like both. The new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History is all about these prehistoric creatures.
“[Pterosaurs] represent the largest creatures ever to fly. In their time, they ruled the sky,” said museum President Ellen Futter at the opening ceremony of the exhibition on Tuesday, April 1, 2014.
“Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs” is the largest exhibition about pterosaurs ever mounted in the United States. Curated by leading paleontologists, it not only showcases life-size models of various species of pterosaurs, but also offers information via videos and interactive exhibits. One of the interactive exhibits is called “Fly Like a Pterosaur,” where visitors can use their body movements to pilot pterosaurs. This is aimed to help people better understand how pterosaurs navigated in the air.
“What I’m really interested in, when I think about those creatures, is to try to understand their evolutionary history,” said Alex Kellner, co-curator of the exhibition. “Where do pterosaurs fit into the big scheme of reptiles, how are they related to each other, how have they changed through time in order to become what they became, and how have they adapted to very different environments.”
Information panels next to models and fossils provide detailed information about pterosaurs. Pterosaurs were the first vertebrate to evolve powered flight. There were more than 150 species of pterosaurs that lived across five continents. The largest species grew to be the size of small airplanes while the smallest species were only sparrow-sized. They became extinct 66 million years ago after inhabiting the planet for 150 million years.
Recent Research and Discoveries
In addition, videos throughout the exhibition tackle more complicated questions, such as how pterosaur bodies were structured for flight and how they are different from a bird or a bat.
“Pterosaurs should be viewed as their own unique and interesting group of animals and not just glorified birds or glorified bats,” said Michael Habib, a biomechanist, paleontologist, and expert on pterosaur flight.
Much of the information presented at the exhibition has only been known in the past decade. Previously, there had been very limited information on pterosaurs. Researchers say that pterosaurs are difficult to study because their bones were thin and fragile and therefore did not preserve well. Pterosaur fossils are rarer than those of dinosaurs or other prehistoric animals.
“We’ve been in the Gobi Desert now for 25 years. We’ve collected thousands and thousands of specimens. We found one pterosaur bone,” said Mark Norell, co-curator of the exhibition and chair of the museum’s Division of Paleontology.
Researchers involved say the exhibition reflects current findings, and they expect new discoveries to paint a more complete picture.
The exhibition will be open from April 5, 2014 to January 4, 2015.
Yi Yang is a special correspondent in New York.