Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs

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Inside the Pterosaur exhibit with 2 pterosaurs flying over the sea

For as long as dinosaurs walked the Earth, flying animals called pterosaurs ruled the skies. They ranged from the size of a sparrow to that of a two-seater plane. Close relatives of dinosaurs, these extraordinary winged reptiles – the first back-boned animals to evolve powered flight, and the only vertebrates to develop this ability besides birds and bats—are the focus of the intriguing exhibition!

Pterosaurs is included in your admission ticket to the Museum. 

Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs highlights research by scientists and leading paleontologists around the world and features rare pterosaur fossil casts. The exhibition includes life-size models, captivating videos, and interactive exhibits that immerse visitors in the mechanics of pterosaur flight, including a motion sensor-based interactive that allows you to use your body to “pilot” two species of pterosaurs through virtual prehistoric landscapes.

Dozens of casts and replicas of fossils are on display from the American Museum of Natural History collection and from museums around the world, including the cast remains of an unknown species of giant pterosaur unearthed in Romania in 2012 by scientists working in association with the American Museum of Natural History.

Learn More About Pterosaurs

Despite popular misconceptions, pterosaurs were not dinosaurs, although the two groups are closely related.

In fact, these flying reptiles were the first vertebrate animals to evolve powered flight, diversifying into more than 150 species of all shapes and sizes spreading across the planet over a period of 150 million years until they went extinct 66 million years ago. There was amazing variation among pterosaurs, as visitors will discover upon entering the gallery to encounter full-size models of one of the largest and one of the smallest pterosaur species ever found: the colossal Tropeognathus mesembrinus, with a wingspan of more than 25 feet, soaring overhead and the sparrow-size Nemicolopterus crypticus, with a wingspan of 10 inches, displayed nearby.

When pterosaurs first appeared more than 220 million years ago, the earliest species were about the size of a modern seagull, but the group evolved into an array of species ranging from pint-size to truly gargantuan, including species that were the largest flying animals ever to have existed. Later in the exhibition, visitors can marvel at a full-size model of a 33-foot-wingspan Quetzalcoatlus northropi—the largest pterosaur species known to date—and the remains of a giant pterosaur unearthed in Romania just a few years ago, which point to a new species that was even stronger and heavier than Quetzalcoatlus

For paleontologists, pterosaurs present a special challenge: their thin and fragile bones preserve poorly, rendering pterosaur fossils rarer than those of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. Visitors will find out about conditions that produce particularly valuable fossils and view a cast of an exquisitely preserved three-dimensional fossil of Anhanguera santanae. The pterosaur, which died and fell into a lagoon in Brazil 110 million years ago, was buried by fine sediment and the mud formed a hard shell called a nodule around the remains, protecting and preserving the pterosaur for posterity.

Since pterosaur fossils are extremely scarce, and their closest living relatives—crocodiles and birds—are vastly different, even the most elementary questions of how these extinct animals flew, fed, mated, and raised their young are still mysteries. But recent discoveries have provided new clues to their behavior. Like other flying animals, pterosaurs spent part of their lives on the ground. Visitors will see a cast fossil trackway from Utah that reveals pterosaurs walked on four limbs and may have congregated in flocks. A cast of the first known fossil pterosaur egg, found in China in 2004, shows that pterosaur young were likely primed for flight soon after hatching. What did pterosaurs eat? An interactive display shows their feeding habits varied widely, ranging from Pteranodon diving for fish, to Jeholopterus chasing insects through the air, to Pterodaustro straining food from water like a modern flamingo. A unique fossil cast shows a Pteranodon’s last meal—the remains of a fish stuck in its mouth, preserved for 85 million years.

Focusing on pterosaurs’ unique ability to fly, the exhibition also draws comparisons between pterosaurs and living winged vertebrates: birds and bats. Pterosaurs needed to generate lift just like birds and bats, but all three animal groups evolved the ability to fly independently, developing wings with distinct aerodynamic structures. The short film “Adapted for Flight” offers viewers a look at the basic principles of pterosaur flight and aerodynamics. A spectacular pterosaur fossil cast known as Dark Wing features preserved wing membranes and reveals long fibers that extended from the front to the back of this Ramphorhynchus pterosaur’s wings to form a series of stabilizing supports. These muscle fibers probably helped pterosaurs adjust the tension and shape of their wings.

Other fossil casts offer additional clues about how pterosaurs lived and behaved. These include Sordes pilosus, the first species to show that pterosaurs had a fuzzy coat and were probably warm-blooded, just like birds and bats, and even some dinosaurs. A gallery display illustrates the incredible variety of pterosaur crests—from the dagger-shaped blade that juts from the head of Pteranodon longiceps to Tupandactylus imperator’s giant, sail-like extension. Visitors can consider the many theories scientists have about how crests might have been used: for species recognition, sexual selection, heat regulation, steering through the air, or some combination of these functions.

Pterosaurs likely lived in a range of habitats. But pterosaur fossils most easily preserved near water, so almost all species known today lived along a coast. The exhibition features a large diorama showing a re-creation of a dramatic Cretaceous seascape based entirely on fossil evidence and located at the present-day Araripe Basin in northeast Brazil. Two Thalassodromeus pterosaurs with impressive 14-foot wingspans swoop down to catch Rhacolepis fish in their toothless jaws, while a much larger Cladocyclus fish chases a school of Rhacolepis up to the surface. In the background, visitors will see an early crocodile and a spinosaurid dinosaur, which shared the habitat with pterosaurs.

Interactive Experiences

Several interactives in this exhibits help visitors see the world from a pterosaur’s-eye view. In Fly Like a Pterosaur, visitors can “pilot” two species of flying pterosaurs over prehistoric landscapes complete with forest, sea, and volcano in a whole-body interactive exhibit that uses motion-sensing technology. For a different perspective on flight, visitors will also be able to experiment with the principles of pterosaur aerodynamics in an interactive virtual wind tunnel that responds to the movements of their hands.

Five iPad stations offer visitors the inside scoop on different pterosaur species—Pteranodon, Tupuxuara, Pterodaustro, Jeholopterus, and Dimorphodon—with animations of pterosaurs flying, walking, eating and displaying crests; multi-layered interactives that allow users to explore pterosaur fossils, behavior, and anatomy; and video clips featuring commentary from curators and other experts.

Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs is Great for School Groups!

Students will experience the world through the eyes of a pterosaur by “piloting” two species of flying pterosaurs over prehistoric landscapes, analyzing bone fragments and more. Then explore life-size pterosaur models and rare fossil casts to discover how these vertebrates moved on land and in the air, how they hunted and more in multi-layered interactives! Students will come away with an understanding of why pterosaurs were the first vertebrates to adapt the ability to fly. 

Book this exhibit as part of our field trip experience today by clicking the button below. 

Dive Deeper with These Reading Recommendations From Kent District Library

The GRPM and Kent District Library have teamed up to offer you more fun and excitement learning about pterosaurs with English and Spanish book titles for all ages, available to check out today! 

Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs is organized by the American Museum of Natural History, New York (

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