When the first Dimorphodon was found in 1828 in England, the discovery of a new kind of pterosaur proved that these flying reptiles were varied and had a wide range. [Image by American Museum of Natural History]

Ancient flying reptiles to visit Ashland

ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum is bringing a new exhibit in the spring that will feature a full-scale pterosaur skeleton and interactive computing programs in hopes of attracting a more mature audience.

As the museum turns 15 years old this December, it is becoming “a teenager who is developing unique personality” and “a risk-taker,” Executive Director Ann Dowdy said at an annual fundraising luncheon Monday at the Rogue Valley Country Club in Medford.

“Earlier this year, it’s become obvious that we need to build something new,” Dowdy said, referring to the fact the museum hasn’t built any new exhibitions in the last four years. “So this is going to be an important resource for us.”

As the students who grew up with the museum are heading to secondary education levels, ScienceWorks is gearing up to bring to life exhibits that appeal to their evolving interests.

The exhibit, featuring flying reptiles called pterosaurs (the p is silent), will be the first prehistoric animal exhibit at ScienceWorks that teaches patrons about “the ancient rulers of the sky.”

“The cool thing about pterosaurs is when I was young, there were only two or three kinds of pterosaurs," said Steve Utt, a ScienceWorks board member and former interim director. "Now we have discovered that there are more than 150 different kinds of them.”

“This exhibit will have a lot of texts to read and a lot of things to learn.”

Pterosaurs existed from the late Triassic period to the end of the Cretaceous (228 to 66 million years ago). They are believed to be the first animals to have evolved powered flight. Different species in the order varied dramatically in size, Utt said, with the smallest wingspan recorded at 18 inches, while the largest wingspan measured up to 36 feet — the size of a small aircraft.

Exhibits Director Leo Palombo said an exciting feature of the exhibit is a motion-sensored screen that allows audiences to control a pterosaur on the task of catching fish — a program inspired by The Virtual Flight Lab in the National History Museum in Los Angeles.

“The exhibit will teach our visitors ‘what is a pterosaur,’” Palombo said. “As they are often misunderstood as dinosaurs. They are not and they’re not birds, either.”

Visitors also will get to see a full-scale fossil of the animal and explore its biomechanics through other interactive displays, Palombo said.

Utt said he’s excited to launch the database of the species, explaining the differences in jaw structures and teeth of a pterosaur that ate bugs and one that fed on small Tyrannosauruses.

“It will appeal to older audience such as middle school and high school kids,” Utt said. “The interactive is definitely above grade-school level.”

About 164 community members, school district officials and museum staff attended the annual luncheon Monday — many of whom made a donation to the museum.

ScienceWorks Hands On Museum, located at 1500 E. Main St., opened its doors in 2002. The museum has over 600,000 visitors to date and serves nine counties in Southern Oregon and Northern California, according to the museum.

— Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or Follow her on twitter at @nguyenntrann.

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