Pterosauring over the Museum of Nature

A full-size model of the 10 metre long wingspan of Quetzalcoatlus northropi — the largest pterosaur known to date—hangs above visitors to the Museum of Nature. Photo: D. Finnin

I remember one morning on the Masai Mara in Kenya, shortly after sun rise, watching a massive vulture fly over us and slowly ride the warming thermals up, up into the blue sky. The bird had a wingspan of almost 10 feet, and it was both majestic and instinctively intimidating.

I remembered that feeling when I visited a new exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Nature, and stood beneath a life-sized model of a reptile that had a wing span three to four times as large. It was the largest, but just one of many species, in Pterosaur: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs.

That massive flyer was not a dinosaur — nor was it a bird, a bat or an insect, those three other distinct orders that have evolved powered flight over eons. Other creatures that seem to fly, such as “flying squirrels” or “flying fish” actually only glide, so they don’t count in the power of flight column.

Two Thalassodromeus pterosaurs with impressive 14-foot wingspans swoop down to catch Rhacolepis fish in their toothless jaws in this large diorama showing a detailed recreation of a dramatic Cretaceous seascape. Photo: R. Mickens

Pterosaurs — the P is silent — were flying reptiles that died out approximately 66 million years ago, after having dominated the planet for 150 million years or so. We humans have a long way to go to get even close to a run so successful as that.

More than 150 species of pterosaurs have been discovered through their fossilized remains, and strange and varied. “They flew with their fingers. They walked on their wings,” say the exhibition notes. “Some were gigantic, while others could fit in the palm of your hand.”

The size range is demonstrated with adjacent models of a pterosaur discovered in China in 2008 that really could fit into the palm of your hand. If they lived today they’d likely be pocket pets, peeking out of designer purses all over central Ottawa. The other model, of a species discovered in Brazil, is many times larger and looks like a giant, featherless seagull, which should alarm anyone who’s ever eaten lunch on a beach.

Much about pterosaurs remains up for debate, though it’s agreed that most species that did exist remain undiscovered, and much remains to be learned about them. It’s known that they evolved flight independently of birds and bats and insects, and while there are commonalities — pterosaur bones were hollow, like bird bones, and their wings were made of membrane, like bat wings — the rest is unique.

Pterosaurs had no feathers (unlike some dinosaur ancestors of birds), and their wings were built around a single, extremely extended finger. The wings would fold upon landing and the animals would walk on them, sort of like a human trying to walk on elbows.

The exhibit illustrates all of this with models and expository panels, and a lot of actual fossils, or casts of the extremely fragile and irreplaceable fossils that are stored around the world. The first fossil to be identified as what we now know as pterosaurs was discovered in Germany in the 1700s, and in 1809 was labelled by zoologist Georges Cuvier as ptéro-dactyle, or “wing finger.”

Experts remained “mystified” by the strange fossils for decades, but the story slowly emerged. Another fossil in the exhibit was discovered in 1828 by Mary Anning, the young, amateur Englishwoman who became a legend in fossil lore — a big-budget movie is currently in production, with Kate Winslet as Anning. The particular Anning fossil proved that pterosaurs “were varied and had a wide range.”

It’s clear that the skies around the planet were filled with pterosaurs of all shapes and sizes. Many were about the size of a modern pigeon, which would make you think twice about strolling to the park with birdseed.

Many had large and striking crests that were probably brightly coloured, based on what we know of other creatures alive today, and their shapes were extraordinarily diverse. One pterosaur had two long, thin bones that grew from the top of its skull, which may have remained bare, like a deer’s antlers, or been connected with soft tissue.

A boy looks at a large video screen that allows you to fly like a pterosaur.
 Photo: D. Finnin

Others crests are equally fantastic — and equally puzzling. Did they help particular species identify each other? Did they help steer in flight, like a ship’s rudder through water? Or were they simply a cool look that helped to attract the opposite sex?

Pterosaurs also varied greatly in what they ate (fruit, insects, fish, other land animals) and how they caught their food. A small one that lived in what’s now China about 130 million years ago looked like a winged salamander, with its round head. Another, from about 180 million years ago in what is now Germany, probably speared fish with its “dagger-like teeth — so long they overlap when the mouth is closed…” The fossil is there, and almost 200 million years later those teeth still look wicked.

The largest of all was the quetzalcoatlus northropi, “larger than any other flying animal known.” It flew over Texas around 67 million years ago. It’s the largest pterosaur fossil discovered to date, but perhaps larger are yet to be found?

Just outside the massive flyer’s shadow, you can stand before a video screen and use your arms to control a pteranodon longiceps (another big one) as it swoops over the ocean in search of fish. I soared gracefully — oh, so gracefully I soared! — and then I crashed into the sea, twice. Much remains to be discovered about pterosaurs, but at least we know why I would have become extinct.

Pterosaur: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs is on at the Museum of Nature until Sept. 2.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.