Quetzalcoatlus

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Quetzalcoatlus
Temporal range: Upper Cretaceous
Senckenberg Museum, Frankfurt
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Sauropsida
Order: Pterosauria
Suborder: Pterodactyloidea
Family: Azhdarchidae
Genus: Quetzalcoatlus
Lawson, 1975
Restored skeleton in quadrupedal stance

Quetzalcoatlus [1] was a huge pterosaur, the largest animal ever to fly. It had a 10 to 12 meters wing-span (33/40 feet),[2] but was light in construction (~200 pounds).[3]

Quetzalcoatlus had an unusually long neck, and when it stood on the ground it was as tall as a giraffe.

Its fossil record is from the Upper Cretaceous of North America, 70–65.5 million years ago. Quetzalcoatlus became extinct at the K/T extinction event.

Its discovery[change | edit source]

The first Quetzalcoatlus fossil was found in Big Bend National Park in Texas by a college student from the University of Texas in Austin. His name was Douglas Lawson. When he was in the park, he saw a bone sticking out of a rock. Since the bone looked very hollow, like the bone of a bird, he thought it was part of a flying creature – and he was right. With his professor's help, he kept digging until lots of bones from an arm and wing were found. The rest of the animal's body was missing.[4] Many others have looked for the rest of that huge pterosaur, but it has never been found. Other fossils of Quetzalcoatlus have been found, of course, but none were as big as the one Lawson found.

Flight[change | edit source]

Since Quetzalcoatlus was so large, two researchers suggested it was too heavy to fly.[5] This would have been astonishing, because in the whole fossil record there is no flightless pterosaur. It has been thought their mobility on the ground was too poor for them to survive without flight. However, a recent discussion of this idea concluded they probably could fly after all. Another analysis suggested their flight was quite strong.[6] Since we have only a few bones, the question of weight cannot be settled at present.[7]

Food[change | edit source]

The feeding habits of Quetzalcoatlus (which had a long beak with no teeth) are unknown, though two theories have been proposed. One idea is that it ate fish, by flying with its jaw in the water, and snapping up fish when it hit them. Texas was largely covered by the Western Interior Seaway at the time. The other theory is that it was a carrion feeder, like vultures and buzzards.[6] It was certainly a soarer, flying on up-currents of air in a warm environment, and its remains come from a site which was far inland in the Cretaceous.[8]

"Of these proposed lifestyles, in-flight piscivory [fish-eating] appears to have gained the most acceptance, with skim-feeding being a frequently suggested foraging method.[6]

This question, and its flight, are still being discussed. The lack of a more detailed skeleton is the main problem in reaching conclusions.

Media[change | edit source]

Quetzalcoatlus was shown in the movie When Dinosaurs Roamed America eating a dead Triceratops carcass.

References[change | edit source]

  1. The word comes from the Aztec language, and is the name of a Mesoamerican deity meaning 'feathered serpent'. It's pronounced something like 'Ketzal-ko-atlus'.
  2. Langston, W. 1981. Pterosaurs, Scientific American, 244: 122-136.
  3. Atanassov, Momchil N.; Strauss, Richard E. (2002). "How much did Archaeopteryx and Quetzalcoatlus weigh? Mass estimation by multivariate analysis of bone dimensions". Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.
  4. Lawson D.A. 1975. Pterosaur from the Latest Cretaceous of West Texas: discovery of the largest flying creature. Science 187: 947-948.
  5. Henderson D.M. 2010. Pterosaur body mass estimates from three-dimensional mathematical slicing. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 30(3): 768-785. doi:10.1080/02724631003758334
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Witton M.P., and Naish D. 2008. "A reappraisal of Azhdarchid Pterosaur functional morphology and paleoecology." PLoS ONE, 3(5): e2271. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002271 Full text online
  7. Minogue, Kristen 2010. Large size did not keep pterosaurs grounded. Science [1]
  8. Wellnhofer, Peter 1991. The illustrated encyclopedia of pterosaurs. London, Salamander. Reprinted as part 2 of The illustrated encyclopedia of dinosaurs. London, Salamander, 2000.