Pterosaurs Quetzalcoatlus northropi is the largest known flying animal that ever existed, and lived on Earth more than 67 million years ago. Now new research on the creature and its newly discovered minor relative, Quetzalcoatlus lawsoni, gives us a better idea of how Q. northropi flew and got in the air to begin with.
Our knowledge of Q. northropi is based on hundreds of fossils discovered in today’s Texas, and its starting method has been a matter of some disagreement: It has been suggested that it ran to build speed like an albatross before flying, or rocking on its wingtips like a bat. , or maybe it did not come up in the air at all.
The new study suggests that the pterosaur used a jump of up to 2.5 meters (just over 8 feet) up in the air, followed by flaps of its 11-meter-long (36-foot) wings, to take to the skies. It would have landed like a plane, slowing down in the air before it landed on terra firma and took a leap for stability.
“If they could jump twice their hip height, to eight feet, the wings would be able to clear the ground and they could perform a deeper flight stroke,” says paleontologist Kevin Padian of the University of California Museum of Paleontology. “This may be the best option to take off, even if it depends on sufficient force from the legs.”
“The animal had to flap its wings to stop and slow down the descent before landing with its hind feet and taking a small jump,” Padian explains. “Then it puts its forelegs down, takes a four-legged position, straightens out and walks away.”
Evidence for this unconventional landing and walking style also comes from fossilized tracks that have previously been discovered in France. Once on Earth, the researchers suggest, the creature would have used its ‘chopstick-like’ beak to catch and swallow fish, invertebrates and small amphibians from the water, just as a heron does.
In the air, Q. northropi would have been much more like a condor floating in the air and using its relatively large head to help complete turns. Scientists believe that the wings were most likely attached only to the front limbs, like the birds we know today.
The first proper analysis of smaller bones found at the Texas site has also revealed a smaller, newly identified species – Q. lawsoni, which appears to have had a wingspan of about 4.5 meters (almost 15 feet). There are significant differences from the larger pterosaur, including in the structure of the skull and spine.
“This is the first time we’ve had any kind of comprehensive study,” said paleontologist Matthew Brown of the University of Texas at Austin. “Though Quetzalcoatlus has been known for 50 years, it has been poorly known. “
The new finds, spread over six published articles, give us a better understanding of these prehistoric beasts, and there are probably more species to be found. Further investigation should also be able to answer the remaining questions regarding Quetzalcoatlus, including the shape of its wing membrane.
Other topics covered by the new batch of papers provide more insight into the distribution, habitat and evolutionary pedigree of Quetzalcoatlus arter. Recent research is likely to be the ultimate source of reference for these creatures for many years to come.
After ruling the sky for millions of years, pterosaurs met the same dramatic end as the rest of the dinosaurs – but through careful analysis of fossils, we can to some extent bring them back to life.
“These ancient flying reptiles are legendary, though most of the public perception of the animal is artistic, not scientific,” Padian says.
“This is the first real look at the whole of the largest animal that has ever flown, as far as we know. The results are revolutionary for the study of pterosaurs – the first animals, after insects that have ever developed driven flight.”
The research has been published in Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).