Soaring high over the tallest of treetops, snatching up an unlucky land-dweller for lunch, and emitting long screeches that echoed far and wide— these are a few of the images one could imagine when asked to think about pterosaurs. And, for some, this might be correct; smaller species of pterosaurs were easily capable of flight, hunting or even scavenging in many different ways. But for other species, an air of mystery remains. Pterosaurs tend to be far more complex than people think at first— for one, they aren’t even considered dinosaurs, despite living alongside them throughout the Mesozoic. For another, pterosaurs likely could have varied drastically in how they lived. We still have a long way to go before we figure out these winged reptiles, and perhaps none of them are as awe-inspiring as Quetzalcoatlus northropi, often considered one of the largest flying animals that ever existed.
Living throughout the late Cretaceous, Quetzalcoatlus northropi could grow to have a wingspan of up to 36 feet— about the size of a standard city bus. Early scientists estimated that this species of pterosaur may have weighed anywhere from 200 to 500 pounds. Like today’s birds, pterosaurs had hollow bones, which made them light enough to fly.
Scientists, however, are not sure if Quetzalcoatlus could take to the skies like its cousins. Even with special bones, a reptile as big as Quetzalcoatlus may have had a hard time getting up into the air. It isn’t always easy for us to know how an ancient animal might have lived during its time, but a Paleontologist can make educated guesses based on the bones that they study. Sometimes, the best clues lie in the animals that we have today; by comparing some of the features of Quetzalcoatlus to modern-day birds, Paleontologists have proposed a few different theories as to how one of the largest pterosaurs lived.
Quetzalcoatlus had a very long, sharp beak similar to the storks that we know today. Based on this observation, it is commonly thought that this pterosaur may have hunted small animals on the ground, similar to storks or hornbills. Supporting this hypothesis is the front and back limbs, which suggests to many modern scientists that Quetzalcoatlus may have been more suited to walking on land than we would expect. However, this alone does not rule out flight. A more recent study, aided in part by Chatham University’s Mike Habib, revealed through a computer model that Quetzalcoatlus could have been capable of flight, and likely flew in short bursts. This likely was used by Quetzalcoatlus before soaring, much like today’s vultures.
Even with modern technology, what we know about creatures like Quetzalcoatlus northropi still leaves plenty of mystery around the winged giant. Able to fly or not, there is no question that this pterosaur is a breathtaking reminder of the complex nature of the Mesozoic era.
Written by: Emma McGeary, Gallery Experience Presenter