AMNH
AMNH

10 Pterosaur Facts from AMNH's New Exhibit

AMNH
AMNH

For a long time, scientists didn't know much about pterosaurs; it was tough to even find fossils of the creatures, since only a tiny fraction died in places where their bones could be preserved. But now, the time is ripe for an exhibition of pterosaurs, says Mark Norell, chair of the American Museum of Natural History's Paleontology Division. "We've learned a lot recently about pterosaurs," he tells mental_floss, "and nobody's ever done an exhibition before."

Norell is one of the curators of the museum's new exhibition, Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of the Dinosaurs, which opens on Saturday. He prepped by creating a wish list of pterosaur fossils and casts, which he got by exchanging some of the museum's fossil casts and things he'd excavated with museum curators around the world. There were items Norell knew he needed to have for this exhibition: "There's the unique pterosaur embryo. We had to have the eudimorphodon, which is the pterosaur from Italy. We had to have dimorphodon from The National History Museum of London. I really wanted to get Dark Wing," top, a fossil discovered in Germany in 2001 that's so well-preserved scientists were able to see details of the wing structure.

The exhibition doesn't just have fossils; scientists also built full-sized models of different pterosaurs and created interactive programs that allow visitors to fly like the creatures. Here's what we learned from an early tour.

1. Pterosaurs weren’t dinosaurs. In fact, that’s the main myth that Norell wants to dispel. Pterosaurs were cousins of the dinosaurs that evolved from a land-dwelling reptile. They were the first animals after insects to evolve powered flight, and the largest creatures ever to fly.

2. The animals varied widely in size, according to Norell: “They range from Nemicolopterus cryptus, which is about the size of a finch, to Quetzalcoatlus northropi,” above, which had a wingspan of more than 33 feet. So far, more than 150 species of pterosaurs have been discovered, and scientists believe there were probably thousands more.

3. Scientists once imagined many ways that pterosaurs might move on land—including upside down in trees, like sloths, or hopping and running on two feet, like birds—but recently discovered fossil tracks suggest that pterosaurs walked on all fours, folding up their wings like umbrellas.

4. Listen up, producers of Jurassic World: If you're going to put pterosaurs in your movie, make sure they've got a little fuzz. New research has revealed that pterosaurs were actually fluffy, which means they were probably warm-blooded, like bats and birds.

5. Scientists aren’t really sure what pterosaurs used their crests for, but they do have some theories: species recognition, sexual selection, cooling, and steering. But Michael Habib, Assistant Professor of Cell and Neurobiology at the University of Southern California and an expert on pterosaur flight who participated in the exhibition, thinks that last one is unlikely, based on tests scientists have performed on model pterosaur heads in wind tunnels. “In order to get [the crests] into a position where they really help at all—for the few crests that could produce useful force in that regard—you had to put the head and neck into really awkward positions that were potentially damaging to the animal,” Habib says. “That also matches what we see in terms of the anatomy, if that is true. If they were used for some other functions—say, a display function—you'd expect the crest would sometimes be very large, and they would be highly variable in the shape. Sure enough, they’re all over the place. They don't seem to particularly correlate with wing shape and structure at all. And that speaks strongly against any kind of aerodynamic function.” That doesn’t mean the crests wouldn’t have an aerodynamic effect; in fact, they’d increase drag. “They would be costly,” Habib says. “But a lot of display structure is costly.”

6. Their eggs were soft-shelled, and only a few have been found so far. (Dinosaurs, by comparison, laid hard-shelled eggs.) By the time a pterosaur hatched, its wings were fully formed; it probably could have taken off shortly after it hatched. Though scientists once imagined pterosaurs caring for their young in nests, they now believe the young hatchlings were on their own from the start.

7. Pterosaur bones were hollow, with walls as thin as playing cards. Like bird's bones, they were strengthened by internal struts. By comparing pterosaur and bird brain casts, scientists have determined that the creatures' brains were similar in certain ways—both had well developed regions for vision and balance, which are important in flying. 

8. Pterosaurs lived from 220 million years ago to 66 million years ago, when they were wiped out with the non-avian dinosaurs.

Photo by Erin McCarthy

9. The first pterosaur discovered and described was Pterodactylus Antiquus (above). It was acquired by a German ruler in the late 1700s and kept in a Wunderkammer, or Curiosity Cabinet; the specimen was eventually named by French naturalist Georges Cuvier, who correctly identified it as a flying reptile, in 1809. (Ptero-dactyle means “wing finger.”) And the discoveries keep coming today: Norell and some colleagues have discovered parts of a new pterosaur that they think is around 15 percent bigger than Quetzalcoatlus 

10. Pterosaurs' closest living relatives are two vastly different animals: Crocodiles and birds. 

All photos courtesy of AMNH unless otherwise noted.

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Authorities Want This Roadside Bear Statue in Wales Removed Before It Causes More Accidents
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iStock

There are no real bears in the British Isles for residents to worry about, but a statue of one in the small Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells has become a cause of concern. As The Telegraph reports, the statue is so convincing that it's scaring drivers, causing at least one motorist to crash her car. Now road safety officials are demanding it be removed.

The 10-foot wooden statue has been a fixture on the roadside for at least 15 years. It made headlines in May of 2018 when a woman driving her car saw the landmark and took it to be the real thing. She was so startled that she veered off the road and into a street sign.

After the incident, she complained about the bear to highways officials who agreed that it poses a safety threat and should be removed. But the small town isn't giving in to the Welsh government's demands so quickly.

Wooden bear statue.

The bear statue was originally erected on the site of a now-defunct wool mill. Even though the mill has since closed, locals still see the statue as an important landmark. Llanwrtyd Wells councilor Peter James called it an "iconic gateway of the town," according to The Telegraph.

Another town resident, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Telegraph that the woman who crashed her car had been a tourist from Canada where bears are common. Bear were hunted to extinction in Britain about 1000 years ago, so local drivers have no reason to look out for the real animals on the side of the road.

The statue remains in its old spot, but Welsh government officials plan to remove it themselves if the town doesn't cooperate. For now, temporary traffic lights have been set up around the site of the accident to prevent any similar incidents.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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10 Scientific Benefits of Being a Dog Owner
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iStock

The bickering between cat people and dog people is ongoing and vicious, but in the end, we're all better off for loving a pet. But if anyone tries to poo-poo your pooch, know that there are some scientific reasons that they're man's best friend.

1. YOU GET SICK LESS OFTEN.

Dog snuggling on a bed with its person.
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If cleaning commercials are to be believed, humanity is in the midst of a war against germs—and we shouldn't stop until every single one is dead. In reality, the amount of disinfecting we do is making us sicker; since our bodies are exposed to a less diverse mix of germs, our entire microbiome is messed up. Fortunately, dogs are covered in germs! Having a dog in the house means more diverse bacteria enters the home and gets inside the occupants (one study found "dog-related biodiversity" is especially high on pillowcases). In turn, people with dogs seem to get ill less frequently and less severely than people—especially children—with cats or no pets.

2. YOU'RE MORE RESISTANT TO ALLERGIES.

Child and mother playing with a dog on a bed.
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While dog dander can be a trigger for people with allergies, growing up in a house with a dog makes children less likely to develop allergies over the course of their lives. And the benefits can start during gestation; a 2017 study published in the journal Microbiome found that a bacterial exchange happened between women who lived with pets (largely dogs) during pregnancy and their children, regardless of type of birth or whether the child was breastfed, and even if the pet was not in the home after the birth of the child. Those children tested had two bacteria, Ruminococcus and Oscillospira, that reduce the risk of common allergies, asthma, and obesity, and they were less likely to develop eczema.

3. YOU'LL HAVE BETTER HEART HEALTH.

Woman doing yoga with her dog.
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Everything about owning a dog seems to lend itself to better heart health. Just the act of petting a dog lowers heart rate and blood pressure. A 2017 Chinese study found a link between dog ownership and reduced risk of coronary artery disease, while other studies show pet owners have slightly lower cholesterol and are more likely to survive a heart attack.

4. YOU GET MORE EXERCISE.

Person running in field with a dog.
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While other pets have positive effects on your health as well, dogs have the added benefit of needing to be walked and played with numerous times a day. This means that many dog owners are getting 30 minutes of exercise a day, lowering their risk of cardiovascular disease.

5. YOU'LL BE HAPPIER.

Woman cuddling her dog.
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Dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than non-pet owners. Even for those people who are clinically depressed, having a pet to take care of can help them out of a depressive episode. Since taking care of a dog requires a routine and forces you to stay at least a little active, dog owners are more likely to interact with others and have an increased sense of well-being while tending to their pet. The interaction with and love received from a dog can also help people stay positive. Even the mere act of looking at your pet increases the amount of oxytocin, the "feel good" chemical, in the brain.

6. YOU HAVE A MORE ACTIVE SOCIAL LIFE.

Large bulldog licking a laughing man.
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Not only does dog ownership indirectly tell others that you're trustworthy, your trusty companion can help facilitate friendships and social networks. A 2015 study published in PLOS One found that dogs can be both the catalyst for sparking new relationships and also the means for keeping social networks thriving. One study even showed that those with dogs also had closer and more supportive relationships with the people in their lives.

7. YOUR DOG MIGHT BE A CANCER DETECTOR.

Man high-fiving his dog.
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Your dog could save your life one day: It seems that our canine friends have the ability to smell cancer in the human body. Stories abound of owners whose dogs kept sniffing or licking a mole or lump on their body so they got it checked out, discovering it was cancerous. The anecdotal evidence has been backed up by scientific studies, and some dogs are now trained to detect cancer.

8. YOU'LL BE LESS STRESSED AT WORK.

Woman working on a computer while petting a dog.
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The benefits of bringing a dog to work are so increasingly obvious that more companies are catching on. Studies show that people who interact with a pet while working have lower stress levels throughout the day, while people who do not bring a pet see their stress levels increase over time. Dogs in the office also lead to people taking more breaks, to play with or walk the dog, which makes them more energized when they return to work. This, in turn, has been shown to lead to much greater productivity and job satisfaction.

9. YOU CAN FIND OUT MORE ABOUT YOUR PERSONALITY.

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The kind of dog you have says a lot about your personality. A study in England found a very clear correlation between people's personalities and what type of dogs they owned; for example, people who owned toy dogs tended to be more intelligent, while owners of utility dogs like Dalmatians and bulldogs were the most conscientious. Other studies have found that dog owners in general are more outgoing and friendly than cat owners.

10. YOUR KIDS WILL BE MORE EMPATHETIC.

A young boy having fun with his dog.
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Though one 2003 study found that there was no link between pet ownership and empathy in a group of children, a 2017 study of 1000 7- to 12-year-olds found that pet attachment of any kind encouraged compassion and positive attitudes toward animals, which promoted better well-being for both the child and the pet. Children with dogs scored the highest for pet attachment, and the study notes that "dogs may help children to regulate their emotions because they can trigger and respond to a child's attachment related behavior." And, of course, only one pet will happily play fetch with a toddler.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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