Watch a pterosaur fly

This animal is Anhanguera, one of the flying reptiles that lived alongside the dinosaurs.

While its skull is in a display case in the Museum, thanks to virtual reality, for the first time ever we can watch how it might have flown.

This animation was made for Hold the World, a virtual reality experience set behind-the-scenes at the Museum.

What is a pterosaur?

This skull belongs to a now-extinct group of flying reptiles called pterosaurs. It belonged to an animal called Anhanguera, which lived about 100 million years ago around the edges of a shallow sea in what's now Brazil.

Pterosaurs lived alongside dinosaurs, but they formed a group of their own. Pterosaurs were evolutionary cousins of dinosaurs and shared many features of their skeletons. But unlike their land-dwelling cousins, they took to the air.

This is one of the best examples of Anhanguera's skull ever found, and it was donated to the Museum in 1989.

An image of the skull on a table

The Museum's skull is one of the best-preserved examples from this animal

 

How did Anhanguera live?

One of the most obvious features of this skull is the bump that you can see on the tip of the snout.

Its function has been the matter of some debate among palaeontologists. It could have been for display, for showing off to other members of the same species in breeding displays, or it might have had some other function. Perhaps it helped the animal to eat - scientists think Anhanguera dipped its snout into the water to grab fish. 

A close-up photograph of the animal's sharp teeth

Anhanguera's teeth were perfectly adapted to the way it hunted. They were sharp for piercing the body of a fish, and curved for grip.

 

It boasted an impressive set of teeth: widely spaced, long, strongly curved and sharpened to a very fine tip. A fine tip is useful for piercing the bodies of their prey, which would have been the slippery fish living in these warm, shallow seas.

The curved shape of the teeth was particularly good at stopping fish from falling out of the mouth while the animal flew off with its prey.

The skull contains a number of different openings, one of which was for the animal's nostril. The opening in the middle contained various air sacs that were connected to its lungs, and the ones right at the back housed jaw muscles. But the largest holes near the back of the skull contained the most important organ: the eyes.

The size of the eye opening tells us something about the animal's lifestyle. In the case of Anhanguera, those sockets are pretty large, suggesting that they would have had very large eyes and good vision. This would have been important during flying, allowing them to avoid other objects and to pinpoint prey.

The skull is held upright while it is scanned

This precious skull was CT scanned by experts at the Museum

 

Studying the pterosaurs

CT scans have allowed scientists to look inside this specimen. One of the things they have been most interested in is looking at the shape of the brain cavity. The animal had a large braincase, suggesting the brain itself was large.

More importantly, different regions of the brain seem to have been expanded in different ways.

Prof Paul Barrett, a palaeontologist at the Museum, says, 'We can tell from looking at the impressions of the brain on the inside of the skull that the part of the brain associated with vision was very large. This corresponds with the fact that we also know Anhanguera had a very good sense of vision from its large eye sockets.

'In terms of flying, another critical part of the brain is a small area called the flocculus. This is a fairly small area in most reptiles, but in pterosaurs and birds, it's very large.

'We know from studies of living birds that it's important for coordinating all of the different sensory information that the animal uses when flying. It looks like pterosaurs had similar brains, in many ways, to birds. Many of those features are similar because of the constraints imposed by its flying lifestyle.'

Anhanguera's bones were also very thin and light, to save weight and help it to fly.

Pterosaur fossils can be difficult to work with. The bones are easily broken and flattened during the fossilisation process. As a result, advances in knowledge can be slow, depending on the discovery of new material.

Paul says, 'Over the past few years, we have found out some amazing new things about pterosaurs, thanks to new technology like CT scanning.

'It allows us to peer into skeletons in ways that previously weren't possible. As well as this, discoveries in key new places around the world have yielded really beautiful new specimens for us to work with.

'With all of these advances, I really hope that soon we'll find specimens that will help us solve some of the remaining mysteries about these fabulous animals.'

Visit Anhanguera

The skull of this pterosaur is on display in the Museum's From the Beginning gallery. Admission is free.

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More information

  • This animation was designed to be viewed via a VR headset, as part of Hold the World.
  • Commissioned by the Sky VR Studio, Hold the World was produced by immersive content studio Factory 42, in association with Dream Reality Interactive and Talesmith, and through collaboration with the Natural History Museum's digital team.
  • Creature animation was produced by The Mill
  • The experience was directed by Dan Smith and executive produced by John Cassy and Neil Graham.
  • The VR experience is available within the Sky VR app on Google Daydream View, Samsung Gear VR and Oculus Rift. 
  • Hold the World will also be available as a standalone app on Microsoft Windows Mixed Reality for a limited time, ahead of the full Sky VR app launching on the platform later this year.