Quetzalcoatlus is the Largest Flying Pterosaur
Quetzalcoatlus, pronounced “KWET-zal-koh-AT-lus” was a huge pterosaur which lived about 65-68 million years ago in the Late Cretaceous period in North America. It had the distinguishing honor of being the biggest known flying animal to have ever lived. Douglas A. Lawson named it in 1975 after a god in Central American mythology that was called Quetzalcoatl. The deity was associated with the wind and air and depicted by a flying feathered serpent. Unlike the figure it was named after, Quetzalcoatlus did not have feathers and was cold-blooded, like all pterosaurs. However, the reference is still definitely fitting for a creature of such an awesome size. It’s wingspan is thought to have been as wide as a private jet and it’s height was thought to be taller than a giraffe.
|Prehistoric Era||Late Cretaceous|
|Weight||220 lbs (99.8 kg)|
|Length||15.9 Meter Wingspan (52.2 Feet)|
|Height||5.5 Meters (18 feet)
|Maximum Speed||80 MPH in Flight|
|Territory||North America (particularly Texas)|
What did Quetzalcoatlus look like?
Quetzalcoatlus was an Azhdarchid in North America.
Quetzalcoatlus was from the Azhdarchae family, which was a family of especially large pterosaurs in the late Cretaceous period known for their extremely elongated and stiff neck vertabrae and long legs.
Paleontologists know for sure about the very long limbs of the Quetzalcoatlus and that it was the biggest of the Azhdarchids, but they are less sure about the mass of the dinosaur. It’s difficult to speculate about the weight of something that has no modern animal to compare with it. Some estimates have been very low, between 100 and 200 pounds. More recent estimates have been in the realm of 500 pounds.
Physical attributes of Quetzalcoatlus
The most incredible physical attribute of Quetzalcoatlus is, without a doubt, it’s wingspan. Although scientists do not agree on the exact proportions, they agree that the length exceeded 30 feet. That is three times the length of the wingspan of the largest flying bird that exists today, the Andean Condor.
Two versions of Quetzalcoatlus have been found at the same site. The fossil material we have for each, appears to be reinforced by the other, but they are in different scales of size. It’s unclear to paleontologists whether the small is young and the large one fully grown, or if they are different species. From the fossils of the smaller species we have ascertained the shape of the beak as being sharp and pointed. Earlier reconstructions showed a blunt shaped beak, but we now know the jaw parts for those reconstructions were taken from fossils of different pterosaur species. Quetzalcoatlus is also known to be toothless, like other pterosaurs.
What did Quetzalcoatlus eat?
Paleontologists know that Quetzalcoatlus was a carnivore, but they are not agreed on it’s eating habits. Douglas Lawson, who discovered Quetzalcoatlus, first proposed that it scavenged like a Marabou Stork , but on the carcasses of titanosaur sauropods. He didn’t believe it was a fish eater due to the fact that the fossil site was so far from the coastline or any signs of large rivers or deep lakes being close at the time it was alive.
The Way Quetzalcoatlus Hunted is Still a Mystery
The scavenging idea was believed for over 20 years, but finally rejected by the paleontologists Lehman and Langston in 1996. They argued that the lower jaw of the Quetzalcoatlus was bent down in such a way that there was a gap between the upper and lower parts, even when closed. They proposed that it fed more like skimmers, such as gulls, who “skim” fish from the waves while flying just over the surface of bodies of water.
But, despite the popularity of the idea, it was also thrown out eventually for the same reason that Quetzalcoatlus are thought to be gliders, not flappers, when flying. The energy cost for skimming is too high for large cold-blooded pterosaurs because of the scientific principle of drag. In 2008 a study showing possible feeding habits of azhdarchids was published. The writers pointed out that the remains of this dinosaur family are not found close enough to large bodies of water that would be required for skimming. They also showed that the anatomy is not at all similar to any known skimmers. The report concluded that their anatomy was similar to modern day storks and they probably stalked and hunted small animals on land.
Where did Quetzalcoatlus live?
Although Quetzalcoatlus was found in Texas, it is thought to have had an enormous range across multiple continents, from North America to Europe. The fossil samples of the dinosaur sometimes overlap considerably with the Hatzegopteryx, which is an azhdarchid pterosaur found in Transylvania, Romania.
Quetzalcoatlus was Probably Cold-Blooded
Quetzalcoatlus had large, bare flaps of skin for wings, not feathers like flying animals of today. It was like all pterosaurs in that way. Due to the fact that the dinosaur had no insulation, that means he had a reptile’s metabolism.
How did Quetzalcoatlus move?
One of the unique challenges of understanding Quetzalcoatlus is in the difficulty that paleontologists have in knowing how Quetzalcoatlus launched itself from the ground into flight. One recent theory is that Quetzalcoatlus launched itself into the air with its very strong front legs and was only assisted by it’s long and relatively skinny hind legs. Another interesting thing about Quetzalcoatlus is it’s got the unique combination of being widely considered a flier, as well as cold-blooded. That means the dinosaur couldn’t flap its wings while in flight since that would require more energy than reptiles are afforded. Birds flap their wings because they have the massive energy stores that are by virtue of being warm-blooded. A theory therefore holds that Quetzalcoatlus glided at elevations of up to 15,000 feet through the air. It was also thought to be capable of speeds as high as 80 miles per hour.
The History and Discovery of Quetzalcoatlus
The Quetzalcoatlus was discovered by Douglas A. Lawson in 1971. He was a student at the University of Texas student who was performing geological field work at Big Bend National Park when he found a fossil bone in an arroyo bank. His professor determined that the particular kind of bone was from the wing of a pterosaur. It was long and hollow with extremely thin walls. Corresponding body bones were never found, although later excavations turned up more wing bones from smaller scaled versions of the first fossil of Quetzalcoatlus with the huge wingspan.
The Historical Significance of Quetzalcoatlus
Quetzalcoatlus is a fascinating dinosaur that has been the subject of much debate among paleontologists. Luckily, advances in biomechanics have increased our understanding somewhat, from an early aerodynamics test in 1984 conducted with a model flying machine, that is now being exhibited at the National Air and Space Museum, to a 2010 biomechanical investigation by a Professor Habib using a sophisticated computer program. The most recent theory was developed by Habib, who surmised that large pterosaurs use short bursts to power their launch into flight and then transitioning into thermal soaring. Who knows what else we will learn about these incredible prehistoric beasts? Only time and future technological advances may tell the secrets of gigantic flying pterosaurs like Quetzalcoatlus.