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Imagination soars at pterosaur exhibit

Long before Tyrannosaurus rex, the world was filled with pterosaurs — bizarre-looking flying reptiles, some as huge as a fighter jet, who ate everything, terrorizing the Mesozoic Age for 160 million years until they, like the dinosaurs, were killed off by a big asteroid.

That little-known world, our window into which has been vastly expanded by science in the last few decades, has been recreated in a stunning new ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum exhibit that invites you, at one point, to virtually think, feel and fly like a pterosaur by flexing your arms and body.

Entirely created by the Ashland’s museum staff and volunteers, it was built for under $250,000, a modest amount among museums these days, especially when they saw a San Francisco museum did their pterosaur exhibit for 30 times that, says Steve Utt, co-creator and president of ScienceWorks board of directors.

Costs for ScienceWorks can be recouped by leasing it out, he says.

A self-described “Silicon Valley escapee” eight years ago, Utt did all the seemingly magical if not miraculous software and video that plops you right in the middle of the pterosaur’s world, which started 228 million years ago and seems a lot stranger than any science fiction movie.

Pterosaurs have replaced the once terrible tyrannosaurus rex, hero of Jurassic Park, as an object of fascination because, says ScienceWorks exhibit director Leo Palombo, “there have been so many discoveries, so much we didn’t know about 10 or 15 years ago, and that’s what you see here — flying reptiles. They are not dinosaurs, not birds. Some had hair, not feathers — so many amazing sizes and shapes.”

They all used to be called pterodactyls, but that word is outmoded now and applies only to a small subcategory. Displays at ScienceWorks seek to show the immense, newly-discovered range of body types, sizes, combs (those wild shapes on top of their heads), as well as their body architecture, which can only be described as an extremely inventive chapter of evolution.

Displays explain that pterosaurs in general had long, pointy heads, usually with teeth, could fly up to 70 mph and would gather food by scooping it from water, land or air. They are not like bats, though they have skin-like wings, and these were made possible by the evolution of the fourth finger to hold a wing.

Many of the exhibits teach you what various species did, how and where they did it — and then you turn around and there’s a video of a familiar beach on the Oregon coast with a couple of pterosaurs soaring in among the breakers, then alighting on our big beach rocks, where they sit and peck and preen. It’s just, simply, hard to believe this ever happened in what’s now Oregon, let alone that we have an accurate, scientific depiction of it.

Len Eisenberg of ScienceWorks’ science advisory board stands at the most popular interactive pterosaur “ride,” urging participants to arch their heads back and wave their arms, as sensors pick up all these cues. There’s a learning curve and most who try it get chomped by a giant-jawed mososaur when they crash in the water. You get points for various foods you kill — squid, fish or ammonite. A sign shows the best score of the day, a 20, and you, usually have zero. It takes several times in a long line to get up to the skill of the pterosaur.

“This display and the science around pterosaurs is interesting because we’ve found lots more fossils and footprints in the last decade,” says Eisenberg, “all of which explain how they lived and got food.”

Another interactive ride shows a seeming x-ray of your flapping human thorax, set beside the ancient creature and giving us a window on how much muscle and thin, fragile, lightweight bone had to be brought into play for it to fly.

The stunning centerpiece of the new exhibit is the lifesize, 16-foot tall wood model of Quetzalcoatlus, the largest known flying creature of all time, which exhibit technician Rachel Benbrook and others fashioned using Turbo CAD and Adobe Illustrator.

“The public reception to this exhibit has been overwhelmingly positive and,” she says, “many people, seriously, have been blown away. That’s what we want — to inspire and encourage science education to the next level.”

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Jamie Lusch / Daily Tidings Aime and Charlee Crutchley test out the new the new exhibit.
Daily Tidings / Jamie Lusch Quintin Olson, 4, of Medford, tests out his wings at the Pterosaurs Ancient Rulers of the Sky Exhibit at ScienceWorks in Ashland on Saturday.