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Fly Like A Pterosaur In The Natural History Museum's Massive Flying Reptile Exhibit

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A pterosaur is not a flying dinosaur. They're flying reptiles. A flying dinosaur, explains Natural History Museum Dinosaur Institute Research Associate Dr. Michael Habib, is known as a bird. These flying reptiles are the focal point of NHM's fascinating exhibit, Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs.Here, you can see full-scale models of these winged beasts alongside ancient fossils, and you can even try to catch a bug or fish in a virtual simulation that turns you into a pterosaur. It's similar to a flight simulator in that you can spread your arms and watch as a digital rendering of a pterosaur mimics your motions—swooping through the air, snatching prey, landing and taking off again. It is the largest exhibition of pterosaurs in the U.S., and contains research from all over the world.

Habib, who worked to organize the exhibit with the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), walked us through the space last week. (It's worth noting that Habib was named one of Popular Science's Brilliant Ten in 2014.) It begins by walking under a full-scale model of a pterosaur, which will give you an idea of just how large some of these animals were. A second model, found further into the exhibit, has a wingspan of 33 feet.

Though large, pterosaurs are sometimes strange in build, often seeming impractically designed, especially those from the Mesozoic era. "They're kind of flying murder heads: massive heads, big teeth, bolt on some wings, and the body is kind of an afterthought," Habib said. "Murder heads" is a phrase he and a colleague recently coined while discussing pterosaurs. The Quetzalcoatlus northropi (the pterosaur with the 33-foot wingspan), for instance, has an impossibly long neck, which Habib said was not particularly flexible the way a modern day pelican's is. Some of the pterosaurs have large crests, which one might think would make them more aerodynamic, though that's not true at all. Habib said the most likely theory is that they were used to attract mates or for species differentiation. When a pterosaur walked, it folded up its wings and walked on three toes, giving it a distinct footprint.

There are a number of fossils to behold, including one famed item called the Dark Wing, discovered in Germany in 2001. This particular fossil is remarkable in how well-preserved it is, and this is the first time it has been on display in the United States. "You can take a microscope to this and see the remnant of the muscle fibers, skin folds, [and] keratin," Habib said.

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In another part of the exhibit, you will see a humerus bone. You can gaze upwards and see a cut-out in the life-size model hung from the ceiling and imagine where that bone would go. Various iPads and videos scattered throughout the space will allow you to learn more about the animals from experts, or explore different characteristics of certain species.

There are about 150 valid species of pterosaurs that we know of, though Habib said there were probably many more that we don't know about. All groups are underrepresented as some areas produce fossils well and others don't. With pterosaurs in particular, an animal that could fly, they could be even more underrepresented. Plus, he said, they're fragile fossils.

"They were robust, powerful animals in life, with thin-walled bones that are mechanically stable with muscle around them, but not as a desiccated corpse with a ton of rock and sediment on top of them," he said.


If you head over to the flight simulator, you'll find yourself standing in front of a large screen with one of these flying reptiles ready to soar. There are two different types of pterosaur you can be, and each one will require you to spread your arms and fly. Habib said they made the simulator "more biological" by adding actions other than simply flying. "If you get close to the ground, the animal lands, and then if you jump up, it takes off again. Then we worked in landing and launch-based mechanics that I've worked on for a number of years," he said. "You can do flapping rate, and [the simulator] will take that into account, and you can do angled attacks. If you tuck down, it will cue for a dive. So a lot of it is cueing. It's not so much that it has to exactly represent what you're dong, it has to take a certain motion and run it through the library of things it knows. But it captures it pretty quickly, and the accuracy and the timing of the motion you make as the operator is pretty good."

He said the real trick was to make a simulator that would work well for both children and their much taller parents.

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is located at 900 Exposition Blvd. in Los Angeles. Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs is available for viewing now through October 2.