Look! Up in the air! It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's a pterosaur! A what? When we think of prehistoric flying things, it's usually the more well-known feathered dinosaurs, such as archeopteryx, that we conjure in our minds. But the pterosaur, which reached unbelievable sizes and was related more closely to lizards, enjoyed remarkable success at life up in the air, where it monitored the heavens and chased ancient insects for eons.
The pterosaur is the subject of Flying Monsters, a new 3-D IMAX film opening today in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science's IMAX theater. To learn a little more about Pterosaurs, we talked with Joe Sertich, a curator at the museum, who knows a lot about the big guys and thinks Flying Monsters is a pretty good introduction. Here's what he had to say, right after the coming attractions.
Westword: Tell us a little about the pterosaur. Why isn't it that well-known?
Joe Sertich: It's often mistaken as a dinosaur, and they're closely related, but basically it was the first reptile to begin flying. Insects went into air, and at first, there was nothing there to to eat them. There was all this food flying through the air, and lizards and reptiles were the first to go into the air after them. Pterosaurs are the innovators, the first things to go to the air and take advantage of that different kind of ecosystem. They didn't have feathers -- they actually used wing membranes, like bats have, to fly. Eventually, they became huge. Some were the size of an airplane.
Why were they so big?
They started out small. The first ones were the size of sparrows or ravens. The largest lizard on the ground was about the size of a giraffe, but once they took to the air and had to compete with birds, they had to find something else to do -- by becoming big, they were reinventing themselves, and that was the best way for them to to continue forward.
How long were they around? And what was their range?
They pretty much appeared around the same time the first dinosaurs appeared, about 220 million years ago, and they lived until about the same times the dinosaurs went extinct. They were just as successful as dinosaurs, yet they've been overlooked. They had a global range. Remains have been found in Africa, Madagasacar, North America -- many, many places. It looks like they were a fairly active group like dinosaurs and birds. They grew quickly, and were potentially warmblooded.
Why don't we hear about the pterosaur more?
They are really rare. Like a bird today, the had bones that were very hollow and delicate. These guys had bones that were even more delicate than bird bones - some as thin as a sheet of paper. In a normal setting where bones are buried, the pterosaur fossils don't survive easily. On the other hand, some have been found with incredible preservation, even a bit of fuzz or fur still intact.
Why should people come see this movie? Did you like it?
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It's one of the better dinosaur/paleontology movies I've seen in a long time. The pterosaurs, especially in flight, are very well done -- its a lot like Avatar. But it also mixes in a lot of good information. It really is cool. I think some IMAX movies are kind of hokey. Some of the ones about dinosaurs seem to be made just so they can show one running around and eating another.
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