EurekAlert! shares the discovery that the world’s largest-ever flying creature, Quetzalcoatlus, a pterosaur with a 40-foot wingspan, managed to take to the skies despite its impressive size by being an even more impressive leaper, jumping as high as 8 feet into the air before flapping its massive wings:
The finding is part of the most comprehensive study of the pterosaur yet, and one of many to come from a new collection of Quetzalcoatlus research published by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology on December 8.
Seen in movies, comic strips, and suspended from museum ceilings, the giant “Texas Pterosaur” has been a media staple since it was discovered in 1971 by Douglas Lawson, then a 22-year-old geology graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin, in Big Bend National Park.
This new research collection – a monograph made up of an introduction and five studies – helps remedy that, said the co-editor of the collection, Matthew Brown, director of The University of Texas at Austin’s Vertebrate Paleontology Collections at the Jackson School of Geosciences.
“This is the first time that we have had any kind of comprehensive study,” Brown said. “Even though Quetzalcoatlus has been known for 50 years, it has been poorly known.”
The research involved close study of all confirmed and suspected Quetzalcoatlus bones, along with other pterosaur fossils recovered from Big Bend. This led to the identification of two new pterosaur species – including a new, smaller species of Quetzalcoatlus with an 18-to-20-foot wingspan.
Brian Andres, who began studying Quetzalcoatlus as an undergraduate at the Jackson School and is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sheffield, performed the analysis and named the new species Quetzalcoatlus lawsoni in honor of Lawson.
Whereas the larger species is known from only about a dozen bones, there are hundreds of fossils from the smaller species. This provided enough material for scientists to reconstruct a nearly complete skeleton of the smaller species and study how it flew and moved. They then applied their insights to its larger cousin.
By examining the geological context in which the fossils were found, [Texas Tech professor Thomas] Lehman determined that the larger Quetzalcoatlus might have lived like today’s herons, hunting alone in rivers and streams. The smaller species, in contrast, appeared to flock together in lakes – either year-round or seasonally to mate – with at least 30 individuals found at a single fossil site.