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Program Flying Monsters


1. Activate prior knowledge about pterosaurs' relatives, the dinosaurs.
Ask students to name any species, or types, of dinosaurs. If possible, display images of two or three dinosaurs they list, or project those found in the provided Dinosaur Gallery. Ask students to list characteristics these animals have in common. Repeat together the names of the dinosaur species they’re seeing. Challenge students to identify the suffix that they hear in each name: “saurus.”

2. Examine roots of the name dinosaur.
Explain that many scientific names are Greek or Latin terms that also have an English meaning. In this case, “saurus” refers not just to dinosaurs, but also to a kind of animal that still lives on Earth today. Give students the opportunity to think about what those animals might be: lizards. Project the image of the Carolina anole, and compare its appearance to the dinosaurs students saw before. The segment “dino” also has another meaning, as an adjective, in English. Ask: What words might describe a huge prehistoric reptile? Elicit responses from students such as big, mean, or strong. Dino means “terrible,” so dinosaur means “terrible lizard.”

3. Examine the name pterosaur.
Project the images of Tapejara and Dimorphodon. Explain that these animals are called pterosaurs. Ask: Can you identify a part of that name? What does it mean? (saur, which means "lizard"). The other segment is ptero. Remind students that dino means “terrible.” Ask: Looking at these two animals, what do you think ptero might mean? (flying, bird-like, airborn) Explain that ptero means “winged,” so pterosaur means “winged lizard.” Explain to students that the word pterosaur names a group of flying reptiles that survived for over 150 million years alongside the dinosaurs, long before humans lived on Earth.

4. Ask a volunteer to become the pterosaur.
Ask a student or teacher to volunteer to become a pterosaur. Explain that the volunteer, a human, has many special adaptations, or body parts and behaviors that help him or her survive. Have the volunteer move his or her thumbs around for the class. Explain that these opposable thumbs, which are able to be placed against one or more of the other fingers on the same hand, allow the volunteer to pick up and manipulate small objects. Pterosaurs were amazing creatures and the first vertebrates to fly.

5. Examine Dimorphodon and Tapejara characterstics.
Continue to display images of Dimorphodon and Tapejara, and read together the captions describing them. Discuss how pterosaurs existed for over 150 million years, during which time their characteristics changed. Ask: In what ways were Dimorphodon and Tapejara similar? (both had wings and could fly) In what ways were they different? (Tapejara has a large head crest; Dimorphodon’s wingspan was about 1.2 meters (4 feet), and Tapejara’s wingspan was 3-4 meters (13 feet); Dimorphodon had teeth, Tapejara did not.) Explain that students will create a Tapejara to look more closely at its adaptations. As you add each characteristic to the volunteer, write and describe each adaptation on the board.

6. Model the pterosaur’s wing bones.
Begin by holding up a wrapping paper roll, explaining that it will be one of the pterosaur’s bones. Have students describe the bone: long, thin, light, and hollow inside. Ask: What about this “bone” might be a helpful adaptation? (Ideas will vary; hollow, light bones could make flight easier.) Explain that one of the first pterosaur fossils discovered astounded the scientists who found it. The fossil had three regular-sized finger digits. Count out the volunteer’s thumb, pointer, and middle fingers. Explain that scientists were surprised by the very long fourth finger. Extend the wrapping paper roll over your fourth finger. Ask: Why do you think pterosaurs had this? (Ideas will vary; the elongated finger is a special body part, or adaptation, which allowed for long wings. The Tapejara had this elongated fourth finger, allowing for a huge wingspan.) Put the cardboard roll or dowel onto the volunteer’s fourth finger. Secure it in the volunteer’s hand with tape to represent the long finger bone.

7. Attach the membranes, skull crest, and tail.

Explain that, like other pterosaurs, Tapejara had a thin skin, or membrane, along that fourth finger, along its body, and down its back limbs. Using tape, attach the plastic bag triangles to the roll or dowel, then to the arm, the hips, and the legs. A striking feature of the Tapejara is the skull crest. Fossils indicate that it had a crest that was about 44 centimeters (1.5 feet) long and nearly 87 centimeters (almost 3 feet) tall. Staple the prepared construction paper crest to the baseball cap; then position the cap on the volunteer’s head. Ask: How do you think this skull crest might have been a helpful adaptation for Tapejara? (Accept a wide range of ideas; some scientists believe the Tapejara used this crest as a sail as it hunted along the surface of the water; others believe it helped to attract a mate.) Finally, explain that Tapejara had a short tail. Tape the construction paper tail to the volunteer’s back.

8. Discuss pros and cons of Tapejara adaptations.

Show students the "Flying Monsters: The Tapejara" film clip. Have students describe what the Tapejara could do well in the film clip, and discuss which body part(s) helped the animal. Accept a variety of ideas, such as fly, glide, flap its wings, and find prey in the air.

Extending the Learning

Have students model the length of pterosaurs' wingspans. Using a tape measure, have two students stand 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) apart to demonstrate the wingspan of Dimorphodon. Two other students can stand 4 meters (13 feet) apart to demonstrate the wingspan of Tapejara. Students may be awed to model the wingspan of Quetzalcoatlus, which is 10-12 meters (33-40 feet).


Subjects & Disciplines

  • Language Arts
    • Whole language
  • Mathematics
    • Geometry
    • Measurement
  • Science

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • explain meanings of the terms
  • compare and contrast characteristics of different pterosaurs
  • describe adaptations of the pterosaur,

Teaching Approach

  • Learning-for-use

Teaching Methods

  • Demonstrations
  • Discussions
  • Hands-on learning
  • Visual instruction

National Standards, Principles, and Practices

IRA/NCTE Standards for the English Language Arts

Standard 3
Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).

NCTM Principles and Standards for School Mathematics

Geometry (3-5) Standard 4
Use visualization, spatial reasoning, and geometric modeling to solve problems
Geometry (preK-2) Standard 4
Use visualization, spatial reasoning, and geometric modeling to solve problems
Measurement (3-5) Standard 1
Understand measurable attributes of objects and the units, systems, and processes of measurement
Measurement (preK-2) Standard 1
Understand measurable attributes of objects and the units, systems, and processes of measurement

National Science Education Standards

(5-8) Standard C-5
Diversity and adaptations of organisms
(K-4) Standard C-1
The characteristics of organisms


What You’ll Need

Materials You Provide

  • Baseball cap
  • Butcher paper
  • Construction paper
  • Large plastic garbage bags
  • Scissors
  • Stapler
  • Transparent tape

Background & Vocabulary

Background Information

Pterosaurs were the first vertebrates to take to the skies. They survived for over 150 million years. Their survival depended on the adaptations they developed over time. Most shared the following adaptations and characteristics: an elongated fourth finger, leathery skin forming wings, large skulls and limbs compared to small bodies, and light and air-filled bones.

Prior Knowledge

  • None

Recommended Prior Activities

  • None


Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry



a modification of an organism or its parts that makes it more fit for existence. An adaptation is passed from generation to generation.

Encyclopedic Entry: adaptation



remnant, impression, or trace of an ancient organism.

Encyclopedic Entry: fossil



the study of fossils and life from early geologic periods.

Encyclopedic Entry: paleontology



extinct order of flying reptiles that flourished from 220 million-65 million years ago.


Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.


Jeanne Wallace-Weaver, Educational Consultant


Elizabeth Wolzak, National Geographic Society
Anne Haywood, National Geographic Society

Educator Reviewer

J. Lynette Gillette, Science Education Consultant

National Geographic Program

Flying Monsters

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