An artists reconstruction of Pteranodon, one of the better known Pterosaurs. Artist: Kate Nolan
In a strange way, I feel sorry for some fossils. Take the flying reptiles (or Pterosaurs, with a silent “P”), for example – a group of unique animals that arose, flourished and diversified into myriad forms during the Mesozoic Era. Their success and diversity was over-shadowed for the most part, however, by the other dominant and better-known animals in the Mesozoic – the dinosaurs.
There is a misconception that the pterosaurs are a kind of flying dinosaur; not so, the Pterosaurs are a separate branch of the reptilian family tree distinct from the more popular land-lubbing dinos and those other underdogs of the Mesozoic, the marine reptiles. Pterosaurs (and their mates in the oceans) always seem to play second fiddle to dinosaurs, often relegated to second billing.…Pterosaurs didn’t even rate an appearance in the first Jurassic Park film, for example.
Part of the problem for the poor old Pterosaurs is their relative scarcity. This isn’t their fault – Pterosaurs needed to have small, lightweight bones so they could fly. Small, lightweight bones don’t preserve as fossils nearly as well as thumping great dinosaur bones, so as a consequence we find relatively fewer pterosaur fossils than dinosaur ones.
Some Pterosaurs were tiny, little larger than a sparrow, still others were truly enormous, and are the biggest animals ever to fly. The new skeleton display opening in the Easter holidays at Melbourne Museum will have the largest of all the known Pterosaurs, with an equally enormous name – Quetzalcoatlus, or as I’ll call her, Suzie Q.
Suzie will take a commanding position soaring over parade of skeletons in the new display, sharing the air above the dinosaurs with some of her smaller cousins. When you come to see the dinosaurs, spend some time appreciating the overhead underdogs – the rulers of the Mesozoic skies.
Better the pebble you know: these rocks will be part of a touchable display about how some dinosaurs used stones in their 'gizzards' to digest their food.
A curator’s desk is a landscape – there are lofty peaks formed by stacks of books, sweeping plains of printed text for labels, and little gullies where biros and pencils congregate. I can’t tidy up this landscape – it would disrupt the ecology of my work as an Exhibition Curator.
Today, some new features appeared on this vista in the form of some bags of rounded pebbles. I suspect I’ll need to explain this a little further – pebble collecting is not a hobby, its part of my job.
In April 2009, the first phase of the redevelopment of the Science and Life Gallery at Melbourne Museum will open to the public. It will be a wonderful experience for the visitor, allowing people to have a unique perspective on skeletons of Dinosaurs, flying reptiles, megafauna and more. One of the unique experiences we want to achieve is to let people use their sense of touch in the exhibition. There are many precious/fragile objects we can’t let them touch, but one of my tasks recently has been to find objects we are happy to say ‘please do touch’. So, I have been thinking of how we could do this, and to source some objects that fit the bill. In a lot of cases, we are encouraging people to feel the teeth of the dinosaurs and their friends, but there’s a problem – some dinosaurs didn’t have teeth.
Toothless (or, if you prefer, ‘edentulous’) dinosaurs obviously needed to find alternative ways to break down their food. We know that at least one group of dinosaurs got around this “can’t chew” conundrum by deliberately swallowing stones that churned around in their bellies, pulverising their food; many birds do this still to this day.
It is these pebbles, called gizzard stones (or gastroliths) that are perched on my desk (sorry, “landscape”) that eventually you will be invited to feel in the new displays, along with a variety of dinosaur teeth and a few other surprises in the new exhibition.
Stay tuned for more, there’s the tale of the ancient fossilised poo coming soon….