Between 240 and 66 million years ago, gigantic reptiles ruled the skies. Pterosaurs—close cousins of dinosaurs—may not have breathed fire, but with their strong limbs and light, hollow-boned skeletons, they were the first vertebrates to fly.
Unlike bats, which have three fingers embedded in their wings and one free digit for climbing, pterosaurs had one elongated finger that formed the front edge of each wing and three exposed digits for running and climbing. Some earlier species had tails that scientists believe were used to help maneuver, but these disappeared as the pterosaurs evolved into more graceful flyers.
In 2009 Romanian scientists discovered the bones of a new pterosaur species among a fairy-tale landscape of hills and rock structures near a small town called Sebes in Romania’s Transylvania region. They nicknamed their find “Dracula.” Using the fragments of bone as their guide, scientists reconstructed a model of the creature—which they say is the largest pterosaur found to date, reaching around 3.5 meters high with an estimated 12-meter wingspan. The reconstruction is now on display as part of a new pterosaur exhibit at the Altmühltal Dinosaur Museum in Denkendorf, Germany. The exhibit also separately showcases the original specimen’s excavated bones.
Researchers are not sure whether pterosaurs this size could actually fly. According to the exhibit’s introductory information there is no conclusive evidence to the contrary, but Dracula has a wrist joint that differs greatly from that of other species that have been found, which could mean it was not meant for flight. But if it did fly, Dracula would have been quite a sight (and probably sound): a small-aircraft-sized animal circling the skies, throwing giant shadows over land-dwellers below.