This Giraffe-Sized Reptile Was the Largest Flying Creature to Ever Live

The pterosaur likely launched itself about eight feet off the ground before flapping away, solving the mystery of how these creatures could even fly at all

An illustration of Quetzalcoatlus walking through a marsh surrounded by lush trees. It walks on all fours with bat-like wings on its front legs; it's shaped like a giraffe with a small abdomen and a long neck. It has a huge head and a massive, pointy beak
Scientists previously hypothesized that Quetzalcoatlus took off by running and flapping its wings or pushing off its wingtips.  James Kuether

Quetzalcoatlus—a member of the ancient group of flying reptiles called pterosaurs—was the largest flying creature to ever live. This giraffe-sized reptile had thin limbs, a terrifyingly long beak and a whopping 40-foot wingspan.

Though Quetzalcoatlus was discovered around 50 years ago, scientists have had a tricky time piecing together details of this creature's life—including how it even managed to lift its giant body off the ground to fly, Megan Marples reports for CNN.   

A new collection of research published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology offers the most comprehensive information on Quetzalcoatlus yet. 

"This ancient flying reptile is legendary, although most of the public conception of the animal is artistic, not scientific," Kevin Padian, a paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley, says in a press release. "This is the first real look at the entirety of the largest animal ever to fly, as far as we know. The results are revolutionary for the study of pterosaurs—the first animals, after insects, ever to evolve powered flight."

Part of the reason it has taken so long to unearth Quetzalcoatlus' secrets is because, like modern flyers, it had hollow bones that helped it fly.

"You have these sort of potato chip-like bones preserved in very hard rock, and you've got to remove the bones from the rock without destroying them," Matthew Brown, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Texas in Austin, tells CNN.

Upon analyzing their collection of bones excavated from Big Bend National Park in Texas, the team discovered two new pterosaur species. One of them was a second, smaller type of Quetzalcoatlus, which had a wingspan reaching 20 feet. They attributed a few hundred bones to the smaller Quetzalcoatlus, leaving only a few dozen bones belonging to the larger one. However, the team was able to reconstruct a skeleton for the new species and infer what the larger one looked like, according to the press release.

Then, with the help of an aerospace engineer and a biomechanic, the team of paleontologists learned how Quetzalcoatlus managed to fly, Jordan Mendoza reports for USA Today.

An illustration of Quetzalcoatlus launch sequence. It's a black and white drawing of the reptile's bones and how it crouches down and launches itself upward.
With the help of an aerospace engineer and a biomechanic, the team of paleontologists was able to discern how the species flew by studying models and applying physics principles. Kevin Padian et al / John Conway

Paleontologists have previously presented ideas about how the giant reptile took off, such as running and flapping its wings or lurching forward on its wingtips like a vampire bat. The new research suggests that the creature crouched and then launched itself eight feet in the air, giving it enough space from the ground to flap its wings and lift off, George Dvorsky reports for Gizmodo.

"(The team) applied a lot of the aerospace knowledge to understanding how something like airfoil works and how much speed you need to generate lift," Brown tells USA Today.

Once the reptiles were airborne, they could fly well. "Pterosaurs have huge breastbones, which is where the flight muscles attach, so there is no doubt that they were terrific flyers," Padian says in the press release.

The new studies also offer insights into how Quetzalcoatlus lived. It inhabited an evergreen forest and hunted in the water. The larger species behaved like a heron, a long-necked bird that wades through water, Gizmodo reports.

According to the press release, Quetzalcoatlus hunted by snatching critters like crabs, clams and worms out of freshwater bodies using their long beaks. The larger species likely hunted solo, but the smaller species flocked together for at least part of the year, given that the fossils of more than 30 individuals were found at one site, according to the press release.

"You kind of have to shift your mindset to think about these as living, breathing animals and not just dead skeletons sitting in a drawer," Brown tells USA Today. "Part of that is looking at modern animals that are alive today that have similar body types."

Despite being this most comprehensive study on Quetzalcoatlus yet, Brown hopes to learn more by excavating more fossils in Big Bend. 

"That would be hugely informative and would really test a lot of our hypothesis about what these big animals look like based on the small ones," he tells CNN.

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