It’s a bird…it’s a plane…it’s a pterosaur.

A new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History showcases these amazing flying reptiles that first ruled the skies more than 220 million years ago. Close relatives of the dinosaurs, the pterosaurs were the earliest and largest vertebrates to evolve powered flight.

With more than 150 known species, ranging in size from a sparrow to a two-seater airplane, the pterosaurs preceded birds and bats as the only known vertebrates in history to develop this ability.

Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs, the largest exhibition ever mounted in the United States on the subject, comes at the perfect time.

“In the past decade, there’s been an explosion of research,” says museum president Ellen Futter. In fact, an unknown species of giant pterosaur found in Romania in 2012 and never displayed outside of Germany is one of the exhibit’s many draws.

“We are taking those things found in the rock and giving them life,” says Alexander Kellner, paleontologist and co-curator of the new exhibit.

Also showcased are several rare pterosaur fossils and casts found around the world, as well as life-size models, videos, and interactive exhibits simulating pterosaur flight. Overhead, a model Quetzalcoatlus northropi, with a 33-foot wingspan, hangs from the rafters. It is the largest pterosaur species known to date.

Warm-blooded like birds and bats, pterosaurs can similarly generate lift. But all three of these animal groups evolved the ability to fly independently, developing wings with distinct aerodynamic structures. A pterosaur fossil called Dark Wing, features preserved wing membranes and reveals that pterosaurs had long fibers that extended from the front to the back of the animals’ wings to form a series of stabilizing supports.

Many pterosaurs also sported ornate crests atop their heads, which might have performed several different functions, ranging from species recognition, sexual selection, heat regulation, steering through the air, or possibly a combination of these things.

Though the cause of pterosaurs’ extinction remains unknown, the characteristics that made them unique are becoming clearer than ever before.

Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs will be on view from April 5, 2014 to January 4, 2015

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