is the largest known flying animal. These large pterosaurs had a wingspan of approximately
40 feet. Photo courtesy MoTTU
Once upon a time, monsters inhabited our planet.
Then they disappeared.
“Prehistoric Monsters Revealed,” a new program airing at 8 p.m. Monday (July 28) on
The History Channel calls upon the expertise of Texas Tech researchers as scientists
try to discover what caused the demise of some of the most ferocious animals ever
to walk, swim or fly across the face of the Earth.
Sankar Chatterjee, curator of paleontology at The Museum of Texas Tech University
and Paul Whitfield Horn Professor of Geosciences and Museum Sciences, said he discussed
with show creators the work he and others have done concerning pterosaurs, which
were the first vertebrates to fly.
These flying reptiles lived 228 to 65 million years ago from the late Triassic Period
to the end of the Cretaceous Period. They dominated the Mesozoic sky, swooping over
the heads of other dinosaurs. Their sizes ranged from a sparrow to a Cessna plane
with a wingspan of 35 feet, he said. Their bodies featured lightweight bones and
an intricate system of collagen fibers that added strength and agility to their membranous
“These animals take the best part of bats and birds,” Chatterjee said. “They had
the maneuverability of a bat, but could glide like an albatross. Nothing alive today
compares to the performance and agility of pterosaurs. They lived for 160 million
years, so they were not stupid animals. The skies were darkened by flocks of them.
They were the dominant flying animals of their time, but they could also walk, run
Featured VideoDr. Chatterjee explains his theory of flight.
The earliest known flying dinosaurs flew like the biplanes of early aviation.
More Video >>
Recently, Chatterjee has studied one of the smaller pterosaurs, called a Tapejara
wellnhoferi, which featured a large, thin rudder-like sail from its head that functioned
as a sensory organ. Though putting the tail section at the nose of an airplane would
seem like a design flaw, his research into Tapejara’s movement and flight showed that
the rudder served as a flight computer in a modern-day aircraft and also helped with
the animal’s turning agility. But not only that, males would use it for sexual display
to attract females.
“Their locomotion is one of the most complicated things to study because you have
to have a complete skeleton,” Chatterjee said. “Their bones were so light they were
often crushed throughout the ages. There was no way for us to study such things before
the discovery of a complete Tapejara in Brazil about 10 years ago.
“We’ve found they could actually sail on the wind for very long periods as they flew
over the oceans. They spent most of their time hunting for fish. By raising their
wings like sails on a boat, they could use the slightest breeze in the same way a
catamaran moves across water. They could take off quickly and fly long distances
with little effort.”