A Transylvania pterosaur had a look all its own and was probably the top predator in its ancient island neighborhood, according to UK researchers who analyzed the neck anatomy of Hatzegopteryx, a giant flying reptile in the Azhdarchidae family.

Some of the biggest flying animals in the history of the planet were azhdarchid pterosaurs, such as Quetzalcoatlus, whose wingspan exceeded 30 feet (9 meters). Hatzegopteryx was certainly in that class, with a wingspan thought to have been up to 39 feet (12 meters).

In addition to the breadth of wing, azhdarchids are typically known for having had long necks and jaws. The behemoths foraged on the ground for small prey such a baby dinosaurs.

Hatzegopteryx, though, throws those characteristics for a bit of a loop, wrote Darren Naish, of the University of Southampton, and Mark Witton, of the University of Portsmouth, in the journal Peer J.

Thanks to a Late Cretaceous neck vertebra fossil from 66-70 million years ago found in Romania, it turns out that Hatzegopteryx was especially thick of neck, for a pterosaur, showing that some azhdarchids could appear proportionally much different than the conventional picture of the animals:

(A) Two giant, long-necked azhdarchids argue over a small theropod; (B) the similarly sized but more powerful Maastrichtian, Transylvanian pterosaur Hatzegopteryx sp. preys on rhabdodontid iguanodontian Zalmoxes. Credit: Peer J

The vertebra's size - 9.4 inches (240 millimeters) long and about as wide; nearly a quarter of an inch (6 millimeters) thick - told the researchers that Hatzegopteryx might have dined on bigger dinosaurs than expected of a pterosaur. Their extra-stout throats and wide jaws would have meant they could step up on the menu from hatchling and baby dinos to creatures such as iguanodontians, like the one being eaten in the above photo. Indeed, the animal "shows potential for tackling much larger prey items, perhaps even killing animals too large to ingest whole," the UK scientists wrote.

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Dovetailing with that appetite for bigger meals was Naish and Witton's suggestion that Hatzegopteryx was likely an apex predator in its ecosystem. The hulking animal that owned the vertebra lived in a part of today's Transylvania that was once Hateg Island, in the Tethys Sea.

The island had its share of small dinosaurs, and because there's no evidence of large predators having been on the island, "we suggest that this pterosaur played a dominant predatory role among the unusual palaeofauna of ancient Hateg," Naish and Witton wrote.

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