From Snakes to Snake Eagles

As the mild winter continues here in East Anglia, we have been extremely lucky to have had some gloriously sunny weather recently, particularly during the recent "half-term" school holidays. And to celebrate, we launched our new series of Activity Adventure Days for 2008, designed specifically for 6-12 year olds.  

For the new year, we have updated the format and added some new adventures to stimulate the enquiring young minds that participate.

One of our most popular adventures last year was our "Dino-Soar Discovery Day" and we really could not have timed the launch event better, because just one day before a newly discovered "flying" dinosaur was announced to the world!

Identified from its fossil remains, the discovery was of a new species of "pterodactyl". Pterodactyls are commonly recognised as the large hulking reptilian, bat-like creatures with gigantic membranous wings - quite unlike the feathered archaeopteryx that many people know from later prehistory.

The interesting thing about the newly-discovered fossil is that it sheds completely new light on the theories of flight evolution. For many years, it was thought that, because pterodactyl remains were found mostly in prehistoric coastal regions, that the creatures needed the coastal updrafts to get airborne and stay aloft.  Once in the air it was presumed that because of their size, these incredible creatures would not have flown like conventional birds (as they would have required enormous amounts of energy to flap their gigantic wings) but rather flew much more like conventional gliders, spending long periods out at sea catching food on the wing from the surface.

However in contrast, the new "pterodactyl" is incredibly small, just about the size of a house sparrow. Equally surprising, it was found in the western part of China's Liaoning province, far from the sea in a region that was heavily forested 120 million years ago. As a consequence, the new discovery has the scientific name
Nemicolopterus Crypticus, which means "hidden flying forest dweller".

Importantly, the experts think the pterodactyl would have been capable of the typical "flapping-flight" we associate with modern day birds. "This really amazing creature, sparrow-sized, which lived essentially in the trees, showing us a very new, very interesting side of the evolutionary history of these animals," said Alexander W.A. Kellner, of the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
"Because they were flying animals, their fossils are extremely rare," he added.

Researchers at first thought that this particular Nemicolopterus find was a baby: he skull was not fully fused, meaning it was not yet an adult, but as the ends of the bones were developed, it was not a hatchling either. They also said the legs and feet had attachments for muscles, indicating that it could grasp tree limbs; and unlike most pterodactyls, it lacked teeth - leading to speculation that it might have eaten insects, much like the common garden birds we have today.

Meanwhile back in the 21st century, the dinosaur enthusiasts on our Activity Adventure Day started the day discussing this news, and then took time to look at some living specimens of both raptors and reptiles to see what comparisons could be drawn between them and their distant dinosaur cousins. 

During our fun-packed day - and with the much appreciated assistance of our neighbour Colin of Abbey Aquatics at Stonham Barns - we examined everything from snakes to snake eagles in our quest to learn more.

Especially exciting was being able to handle many of the reptiles and other incredible creatures within Colin's collection: his reptile knowledge is second to none, and our Dino-Soar Activity Day proved a great opportunity for our young adventurers to share his amazing understanding of the subject.

We rounded off the day with a fossil-making session attempting to make our very own replicas of creatures already known to science - and some yet to be discovered!  Thanks to Chris Soule of Soule Pottery - another Stonham Barns neighbour - for providing us with the clay we needed to make our freaky futuristic fossils.

Finally, if you or any youngster you know would like to participate in one of our Activity Adventure series during 2008, then please click here for more details.