Texas Tech Curator Featured on History Channel Program About Prehistoric Monsters

Chatterjee discusses how strangely designed flying reptiles took to the skies.

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 through paleo-forensics what caused the demise of some of the most ferocious animals ever to walk, swim or fly across the face of the Earth.

The History Channel is Suddenlink Cable Channel 62 in Lubbock.

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 evolve the power of flight.

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 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 wings.

“These animals take the best part of bats and birds,” Chatterjee said. “They have the maneuverability of a bat, but they could get very large and 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 and sail.”

Recently, Chatterjee has studied one of the smaller pterodactyloids, 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 failure, 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 that often they were 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.”

CONTACT: Sankar Chatterjee, curator of paleontology at the Museum of Texas

Tech and Horn Professor of Geosciences, (806) 742-1986 or sankar.chatterjee@ttu.edu.