A Special Place in the Air
The most enduring trope of science fiction movies – when the subject is dinosaurs surviving into modern times – is the gliding into view of a Pterodactyl onto the scene of a lush and steamy jungle. It flies into mid-screen so the audience can get a good look at it, then turns and flaps away into the distance. This immediately indicates that the story will be taking place in a Lost World where dinosaurs have survived into modern day in some remote, uncharted place. Pterosaurs are the family of flying prehistoric animals, of which Pterodactyls are one species. They are so ubiquitous as a device to indicate prehistoric life; they are practically the standard symbol for anything prehistoric. Their look is distinctive, like no other animal now alive. With their distinctive head crests; almost beak shaped mouths; small bodies with what is imagined to be bare lizard-like skin; and generally large, back curving, pointed wings; they have a modern aerodynamic feel. Yet given a body shaped and designed for flight, it is not a design that is readily identifiable with any living animal such as bats or birds. Some Pterosaurs often have sharp teeth protruding from their beaked mouths, which project an ancient presence since no beaked animal now alive has teeth. Unfortunately, as every article on Pterosaurs pedantically points out, Pterosaurs are not dinosaurs. These flying prehistoric creatures, although often associated with dinosaurs, actually branched off early from the dinosaur family tree and followed their own distinct evolutionary path. While this independent evolutionary path is important to paleontologists, in the mind of the layman, they will always be grouped with dinosaurs. Reptilian + prehistoric + cool fossils = dinosaur. Let the scientists declare the difference.
The popular appeal of Pterosaurs is widespread and enduring. The Japanese made a film whose main star was a Pteranodon, a toothed version of a Pterosaur. Since 1956, Rodan remains the classic flying dinosaur movie. This irradiated and mutated flying monster became an apocalyptic horror in the aftermath of the nuclear bombs dropped during WWII. It fed into the mid-twentieth century society’s dread with radiation and its potential for creating mutants. Rodan transcended his own radioactive mutant character to become the uber Pterosaur of a generation of mid-century children raised on duck-and-cover drills, radioactive fallout, and bomb shelters.
Sometime, just before middle school and after third grade, a dinosaur mania creeps into children. Is it some vague connection to fairy tale dragons that have just been outgrown, or a new awareness that life existed on Earth long before people even existed that comes upon the child? Whatever the cause, inordinate amounts of time are spent by pre-adolescents studying the canonical illustrations of dinosaurs by Charles Knight in Natural History books and in articles immersing themselves in prehistoric life. The animatronic and digitized creatures of Jurassic Park are scrutinized over and over again. Some even allocate their meager allowances to purchase bags of dime store plastic dinosaurs. For those fortunate enough to live near a natural history museum, entire afternoons can be spent prowling the dramatically lit collections of fossil bones and Fiberglas reconstructions of prehistoric life. Of course, one of the all-time favorites is the flying Pterosaur. The vicious Tyrannosaurus rex and the ponderous Brontosaur have their fans, but pterosaurs have that special place in the air.
Climbing to the fourth floor of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and commanding the entrance to the Hall of Dinosaurs, painted in an arched niche is a 20-foot-tall mural that is an homage to the flying pterosaurs. Completed in 1945, this mural is a panegyric to the enduring admiration and delight that Pterosaurs have on devotees of prehistoric life. It was painted by Constantin Astori, a Russian immigrant who first escaped the Russian revolution by fleeing to Turkey. Finding the art community in Istanbul limiting and without opportunity, he then moved to New York. Astori was awarded the Natural History Museum mural commission in 1940 and though he did not intend this, his mural of Pterosaurs has become his enduring legacy, and his most recognizable work. Astori, with the help of the museum’s paleontologists did much research on how the flying pterosaurs looked and behaved as was assumed by what was known about them in 1940. His assistant, A. Brown is also prominently named on the mural under Astori. Unfortunately, further details of Brown’s identity seem to be lost. Astori made the most recognizable Pterosaur, the Pteranodon the focus of the mural. It occupies the center of the arch and dominates the composition. It appears to be flying straight at the viewer through a cloud strewn sunset sky. The Pteranodon is counter balanced by a Pterodactylus further in the distance and flying in the opposite direction. Below the flying pterosaurs is a rocky shore, lined with cliffs. On the cliffs, other species of pterosaurs are cavorting in an imagined Pterosaur rookery.
Curiously, there is no vegetation in this depiction of the prehistoric past. This may have been an artistic decision by Astori or decided from information provided by the Museum staff. At the time of the mural’s creation, paleontologists believed that the pterosaurs could not take off from the ground or water. Instead, they assumed they needed to launch themselves off a cliff or tree to take to the air. Now it is known that flying pterosaurs were able to launch themselves from the ground and some from the surface of the water. Most of the fossils that have been found have Pterosaurs living near an inland sea. Even so, not all of them hunted their prey from the nearby seas.
Sixty-six million years ago during the late Cretaceous, the Pteranodon flew in the skies over a great inland sea that covered the central portion of present-day North America from Canada to Mexico. Pteranodon lived in the areas now called Kansas, Wyoming, and South Dakota. Their environment was close to the depiction as presented by Astori in his mural. Their hunting habits were diving or skimming for fish in the water. Since their beaks were toothless this would make diving and swimming for prey in the water more likely. It was assumed when the fossils were first found, that Pteranodon would be unable to return to the air after diving for fish. Now, after finding new fossil evidence of fish in their stomachs, paleontologists have rethought this idea. Pteranodons were very large at 18 feet long from the tip of their beak to the tip of their tail. They were also the model for Rodan and have become the standard for Pterosaurs. This makes their presence as the primary image of the mural logical.
Behind the Pteranodon in Astori’s mural, is Pterodactylus. Their habitat was like Pteranodon, but they lived 150 million years ago during the late Jurassic, by the sea that covered present day Germany. It was a general carnivore with teeth in its beak. It was smaller than Pteranodon, being only 3’5”. Its diet consisted of small marine invertebrates and fish. They lived a lifestyle similar to modern day marine birds. Given that it lived 150 million years ago (84 million years before Pteranodon), it would be impossible for Pterodactylus to share the skies with Pteranodon as depicted by Astori in his mural.
Dimorphodon is pictured as a secondary figure in Astori’s mural. It can be seen flying in the center bottom of the mural as it heads to the left-hand cliff. It was a smallish Pterosaur at 3 feet long with a wingspan of 4 1/2 feet. They lived during the mid-to-late Jurassic which makes their existence overlap with that of Pterodactylus. Their small wing size in proportion to their bodies made them poor fliers. They are thought to have foraged on the forest floor for prey, making short swooping flights to aid in hunting, or scampered up the trunks of trees. Astori does not picture his Dimorphodon in a forest floor environment in his attempt to depict all the Pterosaurs that were known in the 1940’s.
Rhamphorhynchus is the final species of Pterosaur Astori has included. Rhamphorhynchus doesn’t have a distinctive crest as the other Pterosaurs have. It had instead, a long tail that ended in a small fan. Other Pterosaurs had tails, but they did not end in the distinctive Rhamphorhynchus fan. Rhamphorhynchus lived during the late Jurassic, which means that they lived at the same time as most of the other Pterosaurs Astori included in the mural. At 4 feet long with a wingspan of 6 feet, they were medium size compared to the others. Rhamphorhynchus preyed on fish foraged by swimming under water or caught while Rhamphorhynchus was floating on the surface.
The two pterosaurs - Pteranodon, and Pterodactyls - dominate the composition in Astori’s mural. The mural is mainly about these two creatures dramatically flying toward the viewer. The dynamic seashore landscape has a naturalistic sense of perspective that helps to draw the eye deep into the scene. The half-light of the sunset/sunrise sets the mood of other worldliness to the scene. The bat-like creatures that are populating the landscape cliffs mostly on the right do not differentiate themselves enough into the various other known species of pterosaur. The species that I have picked out are from approximations of their details that match their descriptions. They read simply as black shapes that are similar to the forms of Pterosaurs and create the visual noise of a rookery that the bottom of the mural needs for visual balance with the centerpiece of the larger, flying Pterosaurs at the top of the mural. It is the twilight sky and the large Pteranodon swooping toward the viewer that creates the unforgettable impression of a prehistoric reality.
As a child growing up in Albany, NY, I spent many afternoons in the New York State Museum that was only a few blocks from my house. Taking the elevator up to the floor of the museum exhibition space did not prepare you for the door opening onto the theatrical scene of a prehistoric forest, complete with the real trickling water of a modest waterfall. Suddenly, you were thrust into the far distant past which prepared the visitor for the experience to come. While not as immersive and wondrous as the display that the New York Museum had on my child’s imagination, the two flying Pterosaurs of Astori’s mural serve the same gateway to visiting the prehistoric past. These flying creatures hold their special place in our vision where they dominate our imagination and prepare us for the wonders ahead. The images put flesh onto the fossil bones we are about to see and show us how and where these strange and amazing creatures lived. For this experience alone Astori’s work is rightly preserved and lauded.
Arthur Bruso © 2023
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