The colossal winged reptile is the largest known flying animal to have ever lived on the planet
The bones of an extinct reptile tell the story of how this ancient creature took a leap of faith 2.4 meters through the air to take flight, new research has revealed.
Scientists have puzzled for decades about how such a large creature could fly, said co-author Matthew Brown, director of vertebrate paleontology collections at the University of Texas at Austin.
After years of research, Mr Brown’s team found that Quetzalcoatlus probably took off like a fighter jet from an aircraft carrier – striking 2.4 meters above the ground before flapping huge wings.
Like many other flying species at that time, this pterosaur had hollow bones to aid in flight, Brown said.
“You have these kind of chip-like bones preserved in a very hard rock, and you have to pull the bones out of the rock without destroying them,” he said.
Two new species are discovered
Over the past half-century, two new species of smaller pterosaurs have also been discovered in the national park.
At first, scientists were unsure whether these were juvenile versions of Quetzalcoatlus or a completely different species.
The researchers took precise measurements of the fossils and ran them through a computer algorithm. If they didn’t come back as close matches to the other animal, it was probably another species, Mr Brown said.
The smaller of the two new species has a blunt beak while the larger species has a long, thin, pointed beak.
The animals lived in a forest oasis more than 70 million years ago in present-day Texas, which was home to many bodies of water.
The larger Quetzalcoatlus would likely have used its narrow beak to search for crabs and worms along the water, according to the research collection. This species of reptile also tended to hunt alone.
The smaller Quetzalcoatlus was much more social and spent time in large groups. Researchers found about 30 of the flying animals together during a fossil excavation.
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Fossil missing pieces
Scientists have fairly complete skeletons of the smaller species, but only part of the original Quetzalcoatlus body.
Mr Brown said he wanted to pick up where Douglas Lawson, a former University of Texas geology graduate student who discovered the original bones in 1971, left off.
One of Brown’s personal goals is to get a permit and go to the national park to find the remains of the animal and retrieve it.
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“It would be extremely informative and would really test a lot of our hypothesis of what these large animals look like based on the small ones,” Brown said.