By Charly SHELTON
There are a handful of dinosaurs that everybody knows – T. rex, triceratops, stegosaurus, brontosaurus and pterodactyl – and each one of those has a story to tell. For example, it was recently posited that a triceratops is a juvenile form of a torosaurus and not a species on its own. A brontosaurus, it has long been known, is not a real dinosaur but an amalgam of several other sauropods pieced together in a flawed first attempt. And a pterodactyl, while a real animal, is not a dinosaur – it is a flying reptile of the order Pterosauria, which encompasses all flying reptiles known as pterosaurs. If any of that made the slightest bit of sense and you are interested in learning more about these flying lizards from the Mesozoic, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has an exhibit for you.
“Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs” opened last week and runs through Oct. 2. The exhibit focuses solely on these flying reptiles from the smallest, Nemicolopterus crypticus, which is about the size of the human hand, to the largest, Quetzalcoatlus northropi, which is larger than a Cessna airplane. The exhibit also helps to dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding pterosaurs, including its association with pterodactyl. As explained in the new exhibit, Pterodactylus antiquus was the first flying reptile to be discovered and described in the late 1700s while in the collection of a German prince.
“The court naturalist, Cosimo Alessandro Collini, examined the specimen in 1784. With its long, toothed snout, long neck and spindly front limbs, it was unlike any animal he had ever seen. The first scientist to correctly identify this mysterious creature as a flying reptile was French zoologist Georges Cuvier. In 1809 Cuvier gave it a name: ptéro-dactyle, meaning ‘wing finger.’”
It wasn’t until 1828 that the second flying reptile was found and described by legendary fossil hunter Mary Anning. This Dimorphodon macronyx proved that flying reptiles were a group unto themselves, Pterosauria, and pterodactyl was not the odd bird it was thought to be for the last almost 50 years.
Bits of history like this make this exhibit fascinating. Even a trained paleontologist may learn something new in this exhibit because it is so specialized in pterosaurs and presents them side-by-side to compare and contrast. The exhibit overall does feel targeted at children, with interactive displays and even a station with Xbox consoles set up to play a few pterosaur videogames. The roar of children screaming through the hall, at least on the day that I was there, was distracting and took a little away from the overall experience of the exhibit. But there is good information there. If a museum guest takes the time to read all the panels and absorb everything that is put out there, it paints an incredibly detailed and fascinating picture of these flying reptiles.
“The exhibition represents a remarkable moment in the wonderfully rich, vital area of pterosaur research and discovery,” said Lori Bettison-Varga, NHM president and director, in a statement on the exhibit. “We are delighted to partner with our East Coast colleagues at the American Museum of Natural History to bring to life these fascinating flying creatures, both through discoveries of rare prehistoric specimens and today’s cutting-edge technology. We look forward to working together with the global scientific community to learn more about this exciting group of reptiles as new information continues to unfold.”
So grab your earbuds, put on a continuous loop of the Jurassic Park soundtrack and head to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles for its new exhibit, “Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs” at 900 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles.