World’s Largest Pterosaur Leaped Aloft to Fly



AUSTIN, Texas – With a wingspan of nearly six feet, the giant pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus is the largest known animal to soar. But how such a massive animal got into the air is known only from a few fossilized bones from West Texas, but it is mostly speculation.

Some say it bobbed its wing tips like a vampire bat. Or that it gained speed by running and fluttering like an albatross. Or that it didn’t fly at all.

But new research suggests that the mammoth creature likely jumped at least eight feet before taking off its wings.

A step-by-step reconstruction of a proposed Quetzalcoatlus starting sequence. The pterosaur crouches, jumps, and then starts flapping its wings. Photo credit: Kevin Padian et al. / John Conway.

The find is part of the most comprehensive study of pterosaurs to date and one of many to emerge from a new collection of Quetzalcoatlus research published December 8 by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology

Douglas Lawson holds the humerus of the giant pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus northropi, which he discovered. The name pays homage to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl and the aircraft designer Jack Northrop. Credit: University of Texas at Austin / Jackson School of Geosciences.

The giant Texas Pterosaur, which can be seen in films, comic strips and hung from museum ceilings, has been a staple since its discovery in 1971 by Douglas Lawson, then a 22-year-old geology student at the University of Texas at the media Austin in Big Bend National Park.

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

This new research collection – a monograph that consists of an introduction and five studies – is helping to remedy the situation, said the collection’s co-editor Matthew Brown, University of Texas director of Austin’s Vertebrate Paleontology Collections at the Jackson School of Geosciences.

“This is the first time we’ve had a comprehensive study,” said Brown. “Although Quetzalcoatlus has been known for 50 years, it was little known.”

A reconstruction of a Quetzalcoatlus northropi skeleton that hangs from the ceiling of the Texas Memorial Museum on the University of Texas campus at Austin. Credit: University of Texas at Austin / Jackson School of Geosciences.

The UT collection contains all known Quetzalcoatlus fossils. The research included a close examination of all confirmed and suspected Quetzalcoatlus bones, as well as 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 6 to 20 feet.

Brian Andres, who began studying Quetzalcoatlus as a student at Jackson School and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Sheffield, conducted the analysis and named the new species in honor of Lawson Quetzalcoatlus Lawsoni.

While the larger species, Quetzalcoatlus northropi, is only known from about 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. Then they applied what they learned to their larger cousin.

Biomechanics research was led by Kevin Padian, a professor emeritus and curator emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-editor of the research collection.

“Pterosaurs have huge chest bones that have flight muscles attached, so there’s no doubt they were great fliers,” he said.

An artistic take on Quetzalcoatlus Lawsoni, a new species with a wingspan of 6 to 20 feet that hovers over the water. Photo credit: John Conway.

The two species of Quetzalcoatlus called Big Bend their home around 70 million years ago, when the region was still an evergreen forest instead of today’s desert. But everyone had their own lifestyle, according to Thomas Lehman, who began his research as a graduate student at 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 greater Quetzalcoatlus, like today’s herons, may have lived and hunted alone in rivers and streams. In contrast, the smaller species appeared to congregate in lakes – either year round or seasonally to mate – with at least 30 individuals found in a single fossil site.

Over the years, researchers and artists have introduced themselves to Quetzalcoatlus as a skimmer, gatherer, and scavenger. In his study, Lehman presents Quetzalcoatlus as a prober who used his long, toothless jaws to search for crabs, worms and mussels from river beds and lake beds.

Former director of the UT Vertebrate Paleontology Collections, Wann Langston, Jr., spent decades studying Quetzalcoatlus. However, he was unable to publish most of his results until he died in 2013. In recognition of his contributions, Langston is listed as a co-author in two of the studies.

When Langston, Jr., with a model of a Quetzalcoatlus Lawsoni grand piano. Credit: University of Texas at Austin / Jackson School of Geosciences.

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 stepping stone for future research.

“To say that this work is long awaited is an understatement. The good news is that it delivers a great deal and offers the definitive treatment of this iconic beast, ”he said. “Never before has so much detailed information on Azhdarchids (the pterosaur family to which Quetzalcoatlus belongs) been gathered in one place, which means that the work will serve as the standard study of this group for years – probably decades.”