1. Have students describe pterosaur characteristics.

Show students the video “Flying Monsters: An Introduction.” While they watch, have students write words that come to mind. Ask students to share their words and what they found interesting about these creatures. Students might point out their head shapes or head crests. Explain that certain characteristics of these pterosaurs—in particular their ability to fly—probably helped them survive along with dinosaurs for millions of years. Pterosaurs were the first vertebrates to fly. Over millions of years their flying abilities changed along with the shape of their bodies, including their wings and their head shapes. Explain that these changes over time are called adaptations.


2. Compare powered flight and gliding.

Watch the video in Step 1 one more time, having students think of words to describe pterosaur flight. Students might describe wings flapping fast or slow, or graceful gliding. Ask: What does gliding look like? (wings are almost still; pterosaur is soaring) What does powered flight look like? (wings are flapping or moving fast) Next, watch the film clip “Quetzalcoatlus.” Ask students to identify the type of flight. Explain that this huge pterosaur glided in the air, and also used powered flight. Explain that in this activity, students will explore how one charcteristic of pterosaurs' bodies may have affected their ability to fly.


3. Explore head crests.

Show the Pterosaur Gallery, which includes pictures of the four pterosaurs featured in the film Flying Monsters 3D: Darwinopterus, Dimorphodon, Tapejara, and Quetzalcoatlus. Talk about the shapes of the head and head crests. Ask: How are they similar? How are they different? Explain that pterosaurs' bodies were altered through time, and these adaptations helped them to survive. Scientists think that their head shapes made a difference in pterosaurs’ flying and steering.

4. Prepare for the investigation.

Explain to students that they will test the flight of two gliders. Their objective will be to observe how adding a change like a head crest affects flight. Divide students into groups of three, assigning students the roles of glider thrower, measurer, and recorder. Distribute the Glider Instructions worksheet, and have each group first create Glider 1 and Glider 2 using the templates. Prepare an area where each group has about 20 feet of space to lay out a straight line of string where they will launch the gliders. Choose a level space and avoid windy locations.


5. Conduct the experiment.

Distribute one set of the worksheets Glider Investigation and Glider Observations per group. Have the recorder read the instructions out loud and use the Glider Observations worksheet to record the observations their group makes. Explain that each thrower should aim to fly the glider along the string, using the same amount of throwing power each time. Ask students to practice several times. Tell them that when they are ready, they should throw the glider in the same way for each of the trials. Have the measurer practice measuring in centimeters the distance from where the glider hits the ground straight to the string, so that the meter stick or tape measure is perpendicular to the string. Have the group follow the instructions to enter their data in the Glider Observations worksheet, tally averages, and summarize descriptions. Let students know that the differences in glider flight may be slight, so they should look carefully for differences.


6. Analyze and discuss the results.

Thinking about the averages and descriptions, have students answer the questions on the Glider Observations worksheet to draw conclusions about the differences in flight performance. Discuss the results as a class, and tally on the board all groups' results. Ask: Which groups found there was a difference in the two gliders’ flight? Which did not? Were there differences in the average measurements, in the descriptions, or both? Discuss also the need for each group’s two gliders to be the same, the throwing style to be the same, and the challenges in making sure this was the case. The head crest needed to be the only variable to make results of the investigation useful. Explain that scientists often repeat trials again and again to identify even the slightest differences or patterns.


7. Make connections with pterosaur study.
Ask students to think about the findings in their experiments. Ask: Do you think head crests helped pterosaurs fly straighter? Students can base their conclusions on their groups’ results or the results of the class as a whole. Explain that many paleontologists believe that head shape and head crests did contribute to pterosaurs’ improved flying abilities. Paleontologists use models and simulations to help determine these abilities.

Informal Assessment

Check groups' completed observation sheets to make sure students were thorough in their measurement, averaging, and descriptions. If students were able to vary only the head crest while throwing with the same form and intensity each time, students would see that the glider with the crest does fly straighter than the glider without the crest. Students might or might not conclude that having an additional head-crest shape makes a difference in the flight performance, but their conclusion should be based on their observations or the results for the class overall.

Extending the Learning

If possible, show students the film Flying Monsters 3D. Have them listen and watch for more information about different pterosaurs' characteristics. Ask them to think about how these pterosaurs adapted, or changed over time, helping them to survive for millions of years. After the film, have them design their own imaginary pterosaur and label three to five of its adaptations.

Subjects & Disciplines

  • Biology
  • Earth Science
    • Geology

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • compare gliding and powered flight
  • compare characteristics of pterosaurs
  • create and adapt two glider models, observe flight, and record results
  • compare the results of glider tests and draw conclusions about pterosaur adaptations

Teaching Approach

  • Learning-for-use

Teaching Methods

  • Discovery learning
  • Hands-on learning

Skills Summary

This activity targets the following skills:

Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices

National Science Education Standards

What You’ll Need

Materials You Provide

  • Calculators
  • Centimeter tape measure
  • Meter sticks
  • Pencils
  • Scissors
  • Transparent tape

Required Technology

  • Internet Access: Required
  • Tech Setup: 1 computer per classroom, Projector, Speakers

Physical Space

  • Classroom
  • Outdoor recreation space


Open space for glider launching


  • Large-group instruction

Background Information

The four pterosaurs—Dimorphodon, Darwinopterus, Tapejara, and Quetzalcoatlus—lived on Earth from 200 million years ago to 65 million years ago. The earliest of these, Dimorphodon, had no head crest and short wings. The latest of these pterosaurs, Quetzalcoatlus, had a head crest and very long wingspan, which some estimate was as high as 14 meters (46 feet). The long skull/head crest, and the long wingspan, probably enabled the later pterosaurs to be more effective gliders than the earlier pterosaurs.

Prior Knowledge

  • None

Recommended Prior Activities

  • None



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


something that is learned from watching and measuring an object or pattern.


piece of data that can change.