Pterosaurs were the first animals after insects to evolve powered flight—not just leaping or gliding, but flapping their wings to generate lift and travel through the air. They evolved into dozens of species: Some were as large as an F-16 fighter jet, and others as small as a paper airplane.
Pterosaurs flew with their forelimbs: Their long, tapering wings evolved from the same body part as our arms. As pterosaurs' arm and hand bones evolved for flying, they lengthened, and the bones of one finger—the equivalent of our ring finger—became extraordinarily long. Like the mast on a ship, these bones supported the wing surface, a thin flap of skin that was shaped like a sail.
Although many animals can glide through the air, pterosaurs, birds and bats are the only vertebrates that have evolved to fly by flapping their wings. All three groups descended from animals that lived on the ground, and their wings evolved in a similar way: their forelimbs gradually became long, bladelike and aerodynamic.
Although they have much in common, pterosaurs, birds and bats developed the ability to fly independently. Their wings evolved along different paths, and the difference can be seen in their structure.
Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs is on view from April 5, 2014, through January 4, 2015. Learn more about the exhibition at http://www.amnh.org/pterosaurs.
Episode 1: What Is a Pterosaur?
Episode 2: Why Are Pterosaur Fossils So Rare?
Episode 3: Why Did Pterosaurs Have Crests?
Episode 4: How are Pterosaur Names Pronounced?
Episode 5: How Were Pterosaurs Adapted for Flight?
Episode 6: Meet the Paleontologists
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