Quetzalcoatlus Pterodactyl – How Did It Fly? What We Know About It


Quetzalcoatlus is a type of pterosaur that lived during the lower Cretaceous period. It was enormous! They were one of the largest flying creatures in Earth’s history, and their wingspan was as long as 39 feet (12 m). Looking at the skeleton, I imagine seeing this flying reptile gliding over the coastal mountains and cliffs. That’s fine when it’s already in flight, but what if it’s on a cliff or land? It needed to lift off. Which makes me wonder, how did it fly?

As a general rule, scientists suggest that, unlike most modern birds, Quetzalcoatlus launched into flight on all fours by crouching and leaping. The strength of these limbs allowed them to make the powered flight by flapping and gliding. Quetzalcoatlus was a giant pterosaur that lived during the Lower Cretaceous period. They had wings made of skin and muscle membrane, which stretched from their toes to the tip of their elongated fourth fingers. 

Fossils of the Quetzalcoatlus have been found in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. The location of these fossils suggests that they lived in coastal areas during the Cretaceous period.

Pterosaurs flew with their forelimbs modified as wings, which was similar to the mechanism used by bats despite their different structures. Their anatomy indicates that pterosaurs did not fly with stiff or inflexible wings like some scientists proposed in the past. (Source)

How Did Pterosaurs Get in the Air? What about the Giant Quetzalcoatlus?

Pterosaurs possibly launched into the air by using their four powerful limbs. Their flight mechanism differed immensely from that of modern-day avian dinosaurs. Much like vampire bats, pterosaurs took flight vertically and used skin membranes to control vertical and horizontal flight movement.

Paleontologists deduce flight patterns of ancient creatures by conducting comparative studies of fossils with the behavior of their living relatives. They also study fossils to infer the functional adaptation of every part.

It’s presumptuous to claim definite knowledge of how these ancient animals flew. Unlike dinosaurs, their evolutionary cousins, pterosaurs did not leave any living descendants. They also left rare fossils, none of which has ever been excavated while complete.

Quetzalcoatlus-pterodactly-how-did-it-fly-AdventureDinosaurs-1

It’s common knowledge that enormous animals cannot fly because the size would weigh them down and hinder take-off. However, that wasn’t the case about 70-200 million years ago. Back then, giant pterosaurs roamed and ruled the skies.

Pterosaurs were the first creatures with a spine to adapt to powered flight. Some of them were 39 feet long and had wingspans of over 40 feet. They could even stand taller than modern-day African giraffes. (Source)

So, how could such large terrestrial predators take flight? Well, they leaped sky-high, glided, and flapped their muscular winged skin membranes.  

Pterosaurs were quadrupeds with powerful limbs. When taking off, they made sudden standing jumps and launched high above the ground.

The giant Quetzalcoatlus was one of the largest ever Pterosaurs. It had a toothless beak and an unusually elongated neck. Like all other giant azhdarchids, Quetzalcoatlus launched its flight by leaping with its four robust limbs.

Once in flight, these giants used winged limbs to flap and glide.

Did Quetzalcoatlus Have Hollow Bones?

Quetzalcoatlus had hollow bones for its wings. The bones entailed hollow tubes with flexible and lightweight walls. However, internal struts made the hollow winged bones strong enough to support the sails-like membranes.

YouTube Video About The Biggest Thing That Ever Flew – The Quetzalcoatlus

YouTube Video by PBS Eons which discusses what we know about the Pterosaurs, specifically the Quetzalcoatlus – AdventureDinosaurs

Paleontologists excavated fossils of the largest ever flying predator from Big Bend National Park, Texas. The park preserved rare fossils dating from the Early Cretaceous to the extinction of pterosaurs and terrestrial dinosaurs.

A graduate student at the University of Texas discovered Quetzalcoatlus fossils while excavating the Javelina Formation within the park. 

Quetzalcoatlus fossils from Montana are the largest findings of this Pterosaurian genus. Paleontologists found three fragmented skeletons of smaller-sized pterosaurs and a partial wing of the northropi species within a 46-kilometer radius between Texas and Montana. (Source)

The fossilized bones helped scientists to speculate the adaptions of these giant flying dinosaurian cousins.

Before scientists studied pterosaur fossils in detail, they thought flying lizards had similar flight mechanisms to those of birds’. They still had not consolidated small and gigantic pterosaurs within the same group.

Fossils from gigantic pterosaurs indicate that the forelimbs were resistant to stress and fracturing. Unlike birds, these sky lords launched into flight on all fours by crouching and leaping.

The strength of the four limbs explains the ability of these giants to make a powered flight.

Quetzalcoatlus arms evolved for flight by elongating, with one finger stretching out more than others. The wing surface generated lots of tension, and the elongated finger played a similar role to that of ship masts.

The largest among pterosaurs needed strong limbs, but they also couldn’t fly with heavy bones. Thus, these flying hunters adopted hollow tubes for their winged bones.

These gigantic carnivores weighed about 200-500 tons. Herbivorous terrestrial dinosaurs of the same size weighed 2-6 tons more than large Quetzalcoatlus. Paleontologists theorize the body structure suited it for avian pursuits and deadly terrestrial swoops.

The rarity of Quetzalcoatlus fossilized bones is another strong indicator of their hollowness. These fossils were fragile and easily disintegrated after the K-T Extinction event. Dinosaurs had thicker bones, and that’s why their fossils are in abundance compared to Pterosaur remains.

Quetzalcoatlus Anatomy and Adaptations for Flight

Quetzalcoatlus’ anatomy was similar to most Pterosaurs, which are referred to as ‘winged-finger lizards.’ However, this genus was gigantic and lightweight for its size.

Thus, Quetzalcoatlus had elongated limbs that anchored the wing-like flying membranes. 

The membrane is constituted of skin covering a muscle membrane. The membrane stretched from the toes of the hind feet to the tip of the elongated fourth fingers of the front legs.

Its neck, arms, and feet were disproportionately long relative to the gut and chest areas. The flying lizards had air sacs within the hollow bones to compensate for the diminished chest capacity while reducing weight.

The giant pterosaur spread over 39 feet in length and 36 feet in wingspan. Despite its titanic size, its weight was relatively low due to hollow bones and a thin body frame. Thus, its flapping power covered enough surface area to support its weight mid-flight. (Source)

Moreover, these flying lizards were adapted for aerodynamics. It had a sharp beak at the front of a head on an unusually elongated neck.

The wing membranes could have been attached at various points of the creature’s skeleton. The muscles could change the shape of the membrane wings and power different aerodynamic maneuvers on demand. (Source)

The power to change the shape of its wings meant it could create lifts and drags, allowing it to:

  • Accelerate
  • Slow down
  • Glide
  • Swoop down for a kill

Quetzalcoatlus northropi was the apex predator of the skies. It could accelerate to 67 mph when attacking, and it also could cruise at 56 mph when migrating to better niches.

Conclusion

Quetzalcoatlus was the largest flying reptile of its time and had a unique form with adaptations for weight savings and aerodynamics. All that we know about this incredible creature is from fossil remains. Scientists are continuing to analyze its agility and ability to hunt and how it took flight with the anatomy it had. I hope that, through my article, you will also come to see why these creatures are so great.

Michael Haralson

I'm the owner of Adventure Dinosaurs website. Although I have an extensive business background, I am fascinated with dinosaurs and have been since childhood. I'm fortunate enough to have visited fossil museums in Europe (UK, Germany, and Spain), the US (California, Texas) and in Asia (China). Currently, I'm location independent with a home base in Kirkkonummi, Finland.

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