The bones of an extinct reptile tell a story of how this ancient creature took an 8-foot leap of faith in the air to take flight, new research has revealed.
The pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus, the largest known flying animal that ever lived, boasted a 40-foot (12-meter) wingspan that would allow it to soar through the sky, according to a research collection published Wednesday by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Scientists were puzzled for decades at how such a large creature could fly, said coauthor Matthew Brown, director of vertebrate paleontology collections at The University of Texas in Austin.
After years of research, Brown’s team discovered Quetzalcoatlus likely flew by launching itself 8 feet (2.4 meters) in the air.
It took nearly 50 years between the time the bones were discovered in Big Bend National Park in Brewster County, Texas, and when scientists could determine how the creature flew. Brown attributes that to the painstakingly slow process of unearthing the bones.
Like many other flying species during that time, this pterosaur had bones that were hollow to aid in flight, Brown said.
“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,” he said.
Two new species are discovered
Over the last half century, two new smaller species of pterosaurs were discovered in the national park as well.
At first, the scientists weren’t sure if the animals were juvenile versions of the Quetzalcoatlus or a different species altogether.
The researchers took precise measurements of the fossils and ran them through a computer algorithm. If they didn’t come back as near matches to the other animal, it was mostly likely another species, Brown said.
The smaller of the two new species has a blunt beak while the larger species has a long, thin, beak that comes to a point.
The animals lived in a forest oasis over 70 million years ago in what is now Texas, which was home to many bodies of water.
The larger Quetzalcoatlus would have likely used its narrow beak to forage for crabs and worms along the water, according to the research collection. This reptile species also tended to hunt alone.
The smaller Quetzalcoatlus was much more social and would spend time in large groups. Researchers found about 30 of the flying animals together at a fossil excavation.
Missing pieces of the puzzle, er fossil
Scientists have fairly complete skeletons of the smaller species, but only a portion of the original Quetzalcoatlus body. Brown said he wants to pick up where Douglas Lawson, a former geology graduate student at the University of Texas who discovered the original bones in 1971, left off.
One of Brown’s personal goals is to obtain a permit and go out into the national park to find the rest of the animal and collect it.
“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,” Brown said.