UPPER WEST SIDE — Flying creatures called pterosaurs that ranged from the size of a sparrow to an airplane and once "ruled the sky" will be the center of a new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History.
About 220 million years ago, these reptiles used all four limbs to propel themselves into the sky, where they soared using wings attached to their fingers, according to museum President Ellen Futter.
Though a fair bit of mystery still surrounds these prehistoric creatures, the museum has launched the largest exhibit yet in the U.S. to explain what we do know about pterosaurs and lay out recent ground-breaking discoveries.
"These creatures were simply amazing," Futter said at a preview Tuesday.
The exhibit, which opens April 5 and runs through next January, is set up to convey that sense of wonder, with giant models looming from the ceiling as well as interactive exhibits.
While the 150 pterosaur species scientists have so far discovered once lived alongside the T-Rex, they are not dinosaurs or birds, but reptiles.
The pterosaur's claim to fame is that it was the first animal with a backbone to fly, a talent it used to escape predators and hunt fish and bugs more easily.
At the exhibit, kids and exuberant adults can "pilot" a pterosaur through a video simulation that uses their movements to direct their flights over prehistoric landscapes.
Other sections delve into the biomechanics of how that flight works, where and how the fossils were found, what the pterosaur ate, how it roamed the earth and how it was hatched.
The past two decades have been explosive in terms of finding new pterosaur fossils, explained Mark A. Norell, one of the exhibits' curators and the museum's chairman of the Division of Paleontology. Scientists have been focusing on Brazil and parts of northeast China to find new fossil deposits, he noted.
Pterosaurs had light bones that helped them soar more easily, making the preservation of their bodies more difficult. They went extinct about 66 million years ago, the curators said.
From pterosaurs with colorful crests to those with 1,000 teeth to the 33-foot-wingspan species, visitors will marvel at the range of these "fascinating animals," noted curator Michael Novacek.
The exhibit "Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs," opens April 5 and runs through Jan. 4, 2015, from 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. daily. Museum entry plus one exhibit or special show costs $27 for adults, $22 for students and $16 for children.