Pterosaurs, ancient flying reptiles, featured in museum exhibit

Carter Hall, visiting from Nashville, Tenn., tries out Carter Hall, visiting from Nashville, Tenn., tries out the "Fly Like A Pterosaur" simulator at the American Museum of Natural History on Friday, April 4, 2014. Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

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Picture a world of flying reptiles the size of two-seater planes or larger swooshing through the skies diving into waters for fish, hovering above the Kansas plains, the dense canopies of the Amazonian jungles or the mountains in China.

"Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs," a new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, re-creates how these extraordinary creatures, which flew above the dinosaurs, lived millions of years ago all over Earth.

"If you transport back to that time . . . we might have had the same scene over Montauk Point, with pterosaurs flying overhead, diving or fighting over fish much like pelicans," said Mark Norell, museum curator and chair of the division of paleontology.

The pterosaur display is the largest such exhibit ever mounted in the United States, and "is by far the most specific in its variety of fossils," Norell said. It features replica models and fossils, including the most recent fossil of a giant pterosaur discovered in Romania in 2012 by scientists associated with the museum.

The Quetzalcoatlus was the largest of the flying reptiles, and a replica model of it hangs from the exhibition room's ceiling, displaying a 33-foot wingspan.

Different from the museum's traditional glass-encased dioramas, this exhibit has an open-air scene of model replica pterosaurs that sport 14-foot wingspans, flying over a sandy lagoon and catching prehistoric fish in Brazil circa 110 million years ago.

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In a painted backdrop, visitors see its natural habitat, which includes an early crocodile and a spinosaurid dinosaur. "Today that lagoon is a plateau in the Brazilian region of Araripe Basin," said Alexander Kellner, researcher and paleontologist of the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro.

Pterosaurs "are the first vertebrates that conquered the Earth and managed to learn how to fly. They mastered the skies," Kellner said.

"This exhibit is the most comprehensive and provides us with a broad picture of the evolutionary history of these animals," said Kellner, adding that pterosaur fossils are extremely rare. The pterosaurs left no descendants and vanished from the Earth like the dinosaurs, Kellner said. The theory is pterosaurs became extinct because of "the heating of the Earth" and an asteroid crashing onto the Earth's surface, he said.

The exhibition also "integrates technology" to give museum-goers a virtual experience on how these flying reptiles navigated the skies, Norell said.

Flap your arms like wings, or move your hand to feel "the basics of flying through thrust, drag and lift, or if you can catch a fish like the pterosaur," Kellner said of the motion-sensor-based interactive exhibits.

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Also for the first time, the rare "Dark Wing" fossil found in Germany in 1873 comes to the U.S. It reveals intricate details of the pterosaur's wing membrane -- an evolutionary glimpse into the ancient creature's aerodynamic structure.

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