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November 14, 2008

Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Friday, November 14, 2008

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

A Pteranodon skeleton is wasting no time "diving" into its new home at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

Workers from Research Casting International of Ontario, Canada, together with VMNH scientists and other staff, installed the cast of the massive creature Thursday.

"This is the only one on exhibit in Virginia," Dr. Alton "Butch" Dooley, paleontologist at the museum, said during the installation process.

The specimen, which has a 20-foot wingspan, arrived at the museum in a Penske moving van. Wires were used to suspend the ancient flying reptile from the 40-foot ceiling of The Harvest Foundation Great Hall of the museum.

It is angled to appear as though it is diving toward visitors standing on a bridge overlooking the lobby and the Great Hall.

The angle "gives it the kind of look it might have had after spotting a fish in the water and then diving down to scoop it up," Dooley said of the fish-eating reptile.

The newest addition joins other specimens on display in the Great Hall, including the Eobalaenoptera, which lived about 14 million years ago, and Allosaurus, a carnivorous dinosaur that dates back 140 million years.

"I'm excited about the Pteranodon. It is the piece I thought was missing," said Tim Gette, executive director of the VMNH. "This gives us air, land and sea" representations.

Visitors walking onto the bridge will be virtually face to face with the skeleton, and youngsters likely will enjoy standing on the bridge to have their pictures taken with the diving Pteranodon in the background, Gette said.

The Pteranodon lived around 89 to 70 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous period and was one of the largest types of pterosaur - flying reptiles - with a wingspan of up to 30 feet.

With toothless beaks similar to those of modern birds, the creatures were considered reptiles, but not dinosaurs. However, dinosaurs and pterosaurs may have been closely related, and most paleontologists place them together in the group Ornithodira, or "bird necks," according to a release from VMNH.

The cast on display at the VMNH was constructed from skeletal remains discovered in Kansas, and some species have been found in Nebraska, Dooley said.

In life, the Pteranodon likely lived near coastal regions and possibly nested near the coastline, Dooley said.

Besides a massive, razor-sharp-looking beak, the Pteranodon also had three-fingered claws about halfway up each wing.

The three fingers were functional and likely used for holding onto rocks and trees or when walking, Dooley said.

"They are thought to have walked on all fours," he said, adding that the wings themselves were considered fourth fingers.

Based on jaw structure, the creature also likely had a "throat pouch" similar to that of a pelican, Dooley said. Creatures such as the pelican and albatross probably bear the closest resemblance to the Pteranodon, he added.

When first discovered, the Pteranodon was considered the largest of the pterosaurs, Dooley said. With later discoveries of larger skeletons, it now is considered in the medium category.

Based on the rather small stature of the bones, Dooley estimated the creature weighed "30 pounds or so."

Given the massive wingspan and impressive skeleton, "it's outrageous, but it's not much more heavy than a Thanksgiving turkey," he added.