This pterosaur is the largest flying animal in history.

THE Quetzalcoatlus northropi was the largest flying animal in history, he flew and hunted like a giant heron, launching himself from the air to hunt prey in the water.

Everyone is familiar with peterosaurs, the flying dinosaurs that appear so often in movies of the genre, but we know relatively little about these fascinating animals. Now they have published a Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology memoir series that tell us a little more about the greatest of them all.

THE Quetzalcoatlus northropi It was a pterosaur that lived in the swamps of what is now Texas, United States, more than 67 million years ago. With its 70-foot-long wings, it had the wingspan of a small plane, and in order to fly, it had to jump up to eight feet in the air and then perform powerful flaps to fly high into the sky.

The genus name of these pterosaurs comes from the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. Scientists have also for the first time described a minor relative, the Quetzalcoatlus lawsoni, which would have a smaller wingspan, about 4.5 meters, the length of a car. These pterosaurs fed on fish and small aquatic prey.

Professor Brian Padian, co-editor of a series of recently published articles on these animals, says: “These ancient flying reptiles are legendary, although much of the public’s conception of the animal is artistic, not scientific.”

the winged serpent

The biggest pterosaur in history, Quetzalcoatlus northropi, was named in 1975 after hundreds of bones were discovered in Big Bend National Park. The species has been described from large bones in the left wing, but many smaller bones have also been found in other areas of the park in different layers of rock.

When these fossils were discovered, it was unclear whether the smaller bones were simply young specimens or a different kindred species. In the end, the scientists decided that it was probably a new species of Quetzalcoatlus, but they did not perform further analysis to find an exact species.

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Decades later, scientists finally analyzed these smaller bones and found that they have a number of differences from Q. northropi, larger. Among them, changes in the structure of its skull and spine, suggesting that two other species of pterosaurs coexisted with the giant.

Most discoveries correspond to Quetzalcoatlus lawsoni, named after Douglas Lawson, who first discovered the remains. At the same time, researchers also found some bones from a third species of pterosaur called Wellnhopterus brevirostris, which had a wingspan of three meters.

giant herons

By sorting the different bones by species and investigating their unique characteristics, the researchers were also able to discover how different species of Quetzalcoatlus would have behaved.

First, the researchers looked at the toothpick-shaped beak and found that it was probably too delicate to eat meat or scour carcasses. Instead, they suggest that the animals probably acted like a heron, taking fish, invertebrates, small amphibians and reptiles from the water and devouring them whole.

Unlike some previous studies that suggested that the Quetzalcoatlus would have been unable to fly, the researchers found that the species would have been very capable using a jump. Scientists argue that the size of his wings would have prevented him from using a running starter, as they would have shattered to the ground.

Once airborne, Quetzalcoatlus would have flown like modern condors and vultures, and it is suggested that his large head may have helped him complete the turns. At the moment of landing, it would have acted like a plane, braking until it was about to fall out of the sky before hitting the ground.


Morphology and taxonomy of Quetzalcoatlus Lawson 1975 (Pterodactyloidea: Azhdarchoidea)

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