By KATIE MILANI
The flight expert at the American Museum of Natural History made sure to clarify that pterosaurs, the flying reptiles that roamed the earth over 220 million years ago, constituted their own unique genus of animals, not just glorified bats and birds.
With a wingspan of about 33 ft., the life-size replicas hanging from the ceilings in the Manhattan museum’s latest exhibit made sure that these assumptions were extinct.
Four world-renowned paleontologists met on stage at the museum Tuesday to unveil the nation’s largest exhibition about pterosaurs ever created.
Thanks to the latest research by museum scientists and leading paleontologists around the world, the exhibit features rare pterosaur fossils, on top of breathtaking life-size models, videos, and interactive flight stimulations.
“We’ve reached a renaissance in terms of discovery,” boasted Mark A. Norell, curator of the Pterosaurs and chairman of the division of Paleontology,.
In the last two decades, two more sites have been found to hold Pterosaur fossils. Since these fossils are so rare and their closest living relatives- crocodiles and birds- are so different, many questions about their basic living habits remain.
“These were the largest creatures ever to fly. In their time, they ruled the sky,” said Ellen V. Futter, President of the American Museum of Natural History.
Though Futter said scientists marvel at how they lived, ate and cared for their young, the key focus of the exhibit, and in learning about pterosaurs is how they evolved flight and how their bodies were aerodynamic.
Perhaps one of the more intriguing displays is the interactive flight modulator that allows visitors to pilot two species of flying pterosaurs over prehistoric landscapes with help from motion-sensing technology.
A virtual wind tunnel allows a different perspective on flight. Visitors experiment with the principles of pterosaur aerodynamics with hand movements.
But don’t get flight expert and University of Southern California Professor Michael Habib wrong. In order to learn more about Pterosaurs’ unique ability to fly, comparisons between these winged reptiles and birds and bats must be made.
All three species developed wings with distinct aerodynamic structures.
On view for the first time, a fossil known as Dark Wing features preserved wing membranes and reveals long fibers that extended from the front to the back of the wings to form a series of stabilizing supports. These fibers are thought to probably help pterosaurs adjust the tension and shape of their wings.
Though the relationships between Pterosaurs and birds may be similar, pterosaurs’ bones are thinner making them more fragile than birds.
But the paleontologists stressed that due to their massive size, more than birds, pterosaurs dominated the prehistoric skies.