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  6. Flying reptiles swoop down to the Canadian Museum of Nature in Canadian premiere of new exhibition

Flying reptiles swoop down to the Canadian Museum of Nature in Canadian premiere of new exhibition

©AMNH/D. Finnin


A full-size model showing the 10 m wingspan of Quetzalcoatlus northropi—the largest pterosaur known to date—hangs above visitors. 



Ottawa, June 13, 2019 – They flew with their fingers, and walked on their wings. Some were as big as a fighter jet; others so small they could fit in the palm of a hand. The amazing reptiles known as pterosaurs dominated the prehistoric skies for 150 million years. Their story of adaptation and diversity is now presented in the Canadian premiere of Pterosaur: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs, a special exhibition on view at the Canadian Museum of Nature from June 15 until Labour Day.

Produced by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, the exhibition features fossils, life-sized models, interactive games, videos, and engaging displays that immerse visitors in the world of pterosaurs, the first animals other than insects to develop the mechanics of flight.

“Dinosaurs are very popular, of course, but it’s rare to see an exhibition about pterosaurs,” says Meg Beckel, President and CEO of the Canadian Museum of Nature. “It presents recent scientific discoveries and evidence about these intriguing animals, and is sure to be a hit with visitors this summer.”

Pterosaurs were an extremely successful group of reptiles, living about 215 to 66 million years ago. Over time, the earliest pterosaurs—relatively small flying reptiles with sturdy bodies and long tails—evolved into a broad variety of species. Some had long, slender jaws, elaborate head crests or specialized teeth, and some were extraordinarily large. A display in the exhibition illustrates the incredible variety of their crests—from a dagger-shaped blade that juts from the head to a giant, sail-like extension.

“Pterosaurs are interesting to study because of their diversity, which evolved while dinosaurs ruled on land,” explains Dr. Jordan Mallon, Head of Palaeontology at the Canadian Museum of Nature. “They developed flight well before modern birds and bats. This demonstrates that there are a number of solutions in nature to the same problem, which in this case is developing the ability to fly”.

Pterosaur fossils are relatively rare due to the fragile nature of their bones, but the team from the AMNH has assembled the best-known examples, mainly from discoveries in China, Brazil Europe and the mid-west United States. These include Pterodactylus antiquus from Germany, the first-ever pterosaur described (from the late 1700s) and the more robust Dimorphodon macronyx, discovered in 1828 by paleontology pioneer Mary Anning                                                                                                                                                 
More recent discoveries include a cast of the first pterosaur egg ever found—from 2004 in China—as well as the fossils of a recent discovery in Romania. A cast of a slab of rock imprinted with fossil tracks from what is now the western United States shows that pterosaurs walked on all four limbs (including the points of their wings).

Visitors will admire the five life-size models suspended from the ceiling, including the gigantic Quetzalcoatlus northropi from North America. As tall as a giraffe and with a 10-metre wingspan, it was the largest pterosaur ever known.

And a striking, 3D diorama of an inland sea depicts a scene from the Araripe Basin in Brazil, one of the world’s best sites for pterosaur fossils. Visitors will see pterosaurs hunting for fish, and view casts of fossils representing the fish and plants found at the site.

Not to be missed is an engaging video game where the visitor directs a virtual pterosaur to soar and swoop in the hunt for fish or bugs.

During the exhibition’s run, museum educators will be on hand with an activity table replete with casts of fossils and specimens to explore the mechanics of flight and the differences between animals that fly and those that glide. A children’s corner with toys, books, dress-up wings and a puzzle table will keep youngsters busy.

Those visitors wanting to delve further into the mystique of pterosaurs can enjoy Flying Monsters 3D, an award-winning movie in the museum’s Theatre. This visual treat is produced by Atlantic Productions and narrated by noted filmmaker David Attenborough. And for a premium experience in pterosaur flight, the museum’s Nature Inspiration Centre features an exhilarating ride though the Jurassic skies, where the visitor lies on a machine and uses their body to navigate the terrain using the Birdly virtual-reality platform (extra fee applies).

The special exhibition fee for Pterosaur: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs is $10 in addition to the cost of general museum admission. The museum is located at 240 McLeod Street (at Metcalfe St.), Ottawa. Visit nature.ca for hours and fees. Look for the hashtag #Pterosaur on the Museum’s social media channels: Twitter (@museumofnature) and Instagram (museumofnature). Follow the Museum on facebook.com/Canadianmuseumofnature.

Facts about pterosaurs:

  • Scientists have puzzled over pterosaurs since the 1700s, when an unusual fossil found its way into the collection of a German prince
  • French zoologist Georges Cuvier identified the creature as a flying reptile in 1809. He gave it a name: ptéro-dactyle, meaning “wing finger.
  • Pterosaurs were unknown outside Germany until 1828, when a young fossil collector named Mary Anning found a partial skeleton on the beach cliffs at Lyme Regis in southern England. The fossil she discovered, Dimorphodon macronyx, proved that pterosaurs were varied and had a wide range.
  • Neither birds nor bats, pterosaurs were reptiles, close cousins of dinosaurs who evolved on a separate branch of the reptile family tree
  • Pterosaurs were also the first animals after insects to evolve powered flight—not just leaping or gliding, but flapping their wings to generate lift and travel through the air.
  • Pterosaurs started life on the ground, hatching from eggs. Like birds, they also landed regularly to rest, eat and find shelter.
  • Pterosaurs laid soft, leathery eggs, like modern snakes and lizards. Most eggs disintegrated before they could fossilize, so very few have been found. Dinosaur eggs were hard-shelled, so their fossils are much more common.
  • By the time a pterosaur hatched, its wings were fully formed, and it could probably fly within a short time. Scientists now think young pterosaurs survived on their own from the start, with no help from parents.

About the Canadian Museum of Nature
Saving the world through evidence, knowledge, and inspiration! The Canadian Museum of Nature is Canada's national museum of natural history and natural sciences. The museum provides evidence-based insights, inspiring experiences and meaningful engagement with nature's past, present and future. It achieves this through scientific research, a 14.6 million specimen collection, education programs, signature and travelling exhibitions, and a dynamic web site, nature.ca.

Media relations contacts (images available upon request):

Laura Sutin
Canadian Museum of Nature

Dan Smythe
Canadian Museum of Nature
613.566.4781; 613.698.9253 (cell)