Quetzalcoatlus was a pterosaur and the largest flying animal that ever lived on Earth. In six new papers published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology collection, paleontologists paint the most complete picture of the world's largest pterosaur to date.



Living 70 million years ago in inland swamps and open fields, Quetzalcoatlus was the largest pterosaur and the largest animal ever to take to the skies. Individuals stood 3.6 meters tall and had a wingspan of 12 meters - at least 50 percent larger than the wings of the largest known bird.

But because paleontologists had only a few fossilized bones, they knew little about Quetzalcoatlus. They previously didn't know what it ate, how it walked with such huge wings, or how it took to the air and flew. Now, this new analysis suggests that Quetzalcoatlus may have jumped at least 2.5 meters into the air before sweeping its wings and taking off.


This is the first real observation of the largest flying animal ever seen. The results are revolutionary for the study of pterosaurs - the first animals to evolve powered flight after insects. The papers have helped paleontologists flesh out the skeletons of these giant aerial creatures. They describe not only how the species moved on the ground and in the air, but also the geology and ecology, anatomy and classification of pterosaurs.



Quetzalcoatlus foraged, waded and stalked through rivers and streams in a manner somewhat similar to that of today's egrets and herons. The jaws were long and thin, tapering to a point where if you look at the jaws of a heron or egret, they are the same - good for plucking lizards and other small prey, but definitely not for eating carcasses. It has no teeth. Instead, its long, toothless jaws are likely to be used to sift crabs, worms and clams from the mud at the bottom of lakes and rivers.


Quetzalcoatlus also takes off in a manner similar to herons and egrets - using its strong hind legs to jump to twice the height of its rump, then starting to flap its wings when it has enough ground clearance. But pterosaurs soar through the air in a manner more similar to vultures and condors.

Quetzalcoatlus had huge sternum, which is where the flight muscles attach, so there's no doubt they were amazing flyers. Their upper arm bones - the humerus - have huge bony crests that hold the flight muscles, which are larger than in birds and much larger than in bats.



The wings work essentially similarly to those of birds and other dinosaurs, with which pterosaurs are most closely related. Based on how the pterosaur moved its head, neck and jaws, researchers also believe it may have been able to spot prey from the air and swoop down to capture it. It walked on two legs, but even folded up, its wings remained on the ground. The animal first lifted its left arm, then took a large step forward with its left leg, then placed its hand on the ground. The process was repeated with the right limb: the right arm was raised, the right leg advanced and the right foot placed, and then the right hand descended. This may seem like a tedious process to us, but the animal can execute the gait quickly and easily.


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