The world’s largest flying animal – with a wingspan of nearly 40ft – leapt to fly

Artist’s rendition of Quetzalcoatlus northropi wading through water. The latest research describes this species of Quetzalcotalus as having a lifestyle similar to today’s herons. 1 credit

With a wingspan of nearly 40 feet, the giant pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus is the largest known animal to take into the sky. But known from only a few fossilized bones from West Texas, how such a massive animal flew away has been mostly a matter of speculation.

Some think it was swinging on its wings like a vampire bat. Or that it picked up speed running and flapping like an albatross. Or that he didn’t steal at all.

But according to new research, the mammoth creature likely jumped, jumping at least 8 feet in the air before taking off by sweeping its wings.

The discovery is part of the most comprehensive study of the pterosaur to date, and one of many to come from a new collection of Quetzalcoatlus research published by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology on December 8, 2021.

Launch of Quetzalcoatlus

A step-by-step reconstruction of a proposed Quetzalcoatlus launch sequence. The pterosaur crouches, leaps up and then begins to flap its wings. Credit: Kevin Padian et al / John Conway

Seen in movies, comic books and hanging from museum ceilings, the giant “Texas Pterosaur” has been a staple of the media since its discovery in 1971 by Douglas Lawson, then a 22-year-old graduate geology student at the University of Texas in Austin, in Big Bend National Park.

However, science has not followed the popular image of the pterosaur. Aside from Lawson’s early descriptions of the fossils, almost no scientific research has been published based on direct study of the bones.

Douglas Lawson with Quetzalcoatlus bones

Douglas Lawson with wing bones of Quetzalcoatlus northropi that he discovered in Big Bend National Park. It holds the humerus bone. Credit: University of Texas at Austin / Jackson School of Geosciences

This new research collection — a monograph consisting of an introduction and five studies — helps remedy that, said the collection’s co-editor, Matthew Brown, director of the University of Texas Vertebrate Paleontology Collections. in Austin at the Jackson School of Geosciences.

“This is the first time we’ve had an in-depth study,” Brown said. “Although Quetzalcoatlus has been known for 50 years, it is not well known.

The UT collections contain all the Quetzalcoatlus fossils. The search involved an in-depth study of all confirmed and suspected cases Quetzalcoatlus bones, along with other pterosaur fossils recovered from Big Bend. This led to the identification of two new species of pterosaurs – including a new, smaller species of Quetzalcoatlus with a wingspan of 18 to 20 feet.

Brian Andres, who started studying Quetzalcoatlus as an undergraduate student at the Jackson School and is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sheffield, performed the analysis and named the new species Quetzalcoatlus lawoni in honor of Lawson.

While the larger species is only known from a dozen bones, there are hundreds of fossils of the smaller species. This provided enough material for scientists to reconstruct an almost complete skeleton of the smaller species and study how it flew and moved. They then applied their ideas to his big cousin.

The biomechanics research was led by Kevin Padian, Professor Emeritus and Curator Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeleyand co-editor of the research collection.

“Pterosaurs have huge sternums, where the flight muscles attach, so there’s no doubt that they were formidable fliers,” he said.

Both Quetzalcoatlus the two species called Big Bend about 70 million years ago, when the area was evergreen forest instead of today’s desert. But each led a distinct lifestyle, according to Thomas Lehman, who began his research as a doctoral student at the Jackson School and is now a professor at Texas Tech University.

By examining the geological context in which the fossils were found, Lehman determined that the largest Quetzalcoatlus could have lived like today’s herons, hunting alone in rivers and streams. Smaller species, on the other hand, appeared to congregate in lakes – either year-round or seasonally to mate – with at least 30 individuals found at a single fossil site.

Over the years, researchers and artists have imagined Quetzalcoatlus as a skimmer, forager and scavenger. In his study, Lehman presents Quetzalcoatlus like a sounder who used his long toothless jaws to sift crabs, worms and clams from the bottoms of rivers and lake beds.

Former director of UT’s vertebrate paleontology collections, Wann Langston, Jr., has spent decades studying Quetzalcoatlus. But he was unable to publish most of his findings until his death in 2013. To acknowledge his contributions, Langston is listed as a co-author on two of the studies.

Darren Naish, a paleozoologist and pterosaur expert who was not involved in the research, said the science presented in the monograph is a boon to pterosaur science and will serve as a springboard for future research.

“To say this work is long overdue is an understatement. The good news is that it is very effective, providing the definitive treatment for this iconic animal,” he said. “Never before had so much detailed information about the azhdarchids (the pterosaur family that includes Quetzalcoatlus) were collected in one place, meaning the work will serve as the standard study of reference for this group for years – probably decades – to come.

For more on this research, see Legendary Flying Reptile: Fleshing Out the Bones of Quetzalcoatlus, Earth’s Largest Flier Ever.

Reference: “Functional morphology of Quetzalcoatlus Lawson 1975 (Pterodactyloidea: Azhdarchoidea)” by Kevin Padian, James R. Cunningham, Wann Langston JR. and John Conway, December 7, 2021, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

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