Prehistoric Animals


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Eldar Zakirov

Quetzalcoatlus northropi

The Quetzalcoatlus northropi dominated the North American skies at the end of the dinosaur age and flew over famous creatures like the Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops. Very little known, this huge pterosaur is possibly the largest flying animal to ever exist. As big and tall as a giraffe, the size of this flying reptile is absolutely remarkable.

Named in honor of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl (feathered serpent), the Quetzalcoatlus is the most famous member of the Azhdarchidae family, some large pterosaurs that lived during the Cretaceous era for nearly 80 million years. These flying reptiles were all very large and had a long pointed skull; some also had a short crest on the back of their cranium. Their necks and legs were very elongated while their torsos and wings were rather short relative to their bodies. These animals are known to be predatory, although their hunting mode has long been misunderstood. Among these giants with wingspans reaching 12 meters is also Hatzegopteryx which was possibly even bigger than the Quetzalcoatlus northropi.

Unable to fly?

Although Quetzalcoatlus was a pterosaur, that does not mean it was able to fly. Many modern birds like the penguin and the ostrich are exclusively terrestrial. Some paleontologists even insist that this pterosaur was better adapted to life on Earth and that it hunted on its two hind legs like the big theropod dinosaurs. However, the fact that Quetzalcoatlus retained such large wings indicate that he had to spend only a tiny portion of his time on the ground.

Assuming it was indeed able to fly, one wonders how a reptile of nearly 300 pounds launched itself in the air. If it could easily flap its wings, it could have given itself a racing boost before leaping into the air aided by powerful hind legs muscles before taking off. That being said this style of launching had to be supported by an incredible warm-blooded metabolism.

But if on the contrary he was rather a glider as many specialists think, then he had to jump into the air from steep cliffs. This would have made the Quetzalcoatlus a cold-blooded animal, which is very well defended by the fact that the pterosaurs of the Mesozoic era had no feathers. Quetzalcoatlus would hover over very long distances and occasionally rotate its large wings to make transfers against the prevailing wind.

Earth scavenger

For a moment, Quetzalcoatlus-like pterosaurs have been portrayed as giant vultures recovering dinosaur carcasses. Unlike other large pterosaurs such as Pteranodon, fossils of Quetzalcoatlus have been found inland suggesting a scavenger diet. Its long, narrow beak also suggests that this pterosaur skimmed the shallow waters and harpooned fish and small marine reptiles. It now seems more plausible that the Quetzalcoatlus fed on an assortment of terrestrial animals, including small dinosaurs. An animal as wide as this one could easily hunt on the mainland and swallow small prey in its enormous toothless jaw. In fact, the eating habits of Quetzalcoatlus northropi were somewhat similar to those of the current storks. Located between large carnivorous dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus and small dromeosaurids such as Velociraptor, it occupied an intermediate niche in the food chain.


Quetzalcoatlus northropi

Two species of this kind of pterosaur lived in the regions of Texas, as evidenced by the discovery of fossils in the Javelina Formation. The larger of the two, Quetzalcoatlus northropi, had a size comparable to that of a giraffe: 16 feet tall. Its wingspan exceeded 30 feet (3 times that of an Andean Condor) and its length could reach 18 feet long for a weight between 250 and 300 pounds. Recent studies suggest that it could actually weigh up to a quarter of a ton. It is estimated that this pterosaur preferred to hover at altitudes between 10,000 and 15,000 feet at speeds as fast as 130 km / h.

The smallest species, Quetzalcoatlus sp, is better known since the fossils are more complete. Although it is sometimes depicted in television documentaries, this kind of flying reptile is poorly known mainly because the fossils of Q. northropi are scarce and incomplete. Information must be extrapolated from close relatives that are better understood. For example the cranium of the largest species remains unknown and the smallest one is used during reconstruction. The result is often the combination of several species.

Disappearance of Quetzalcoatlus

The Quetzalcoatlus disappeared along with his fellow pterosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, succumbing to the same environmental pressures as dinosaurs and marine reptiles. As any Tyrannosaurus or Triceratops can confirm, large sizes are not an insurance policy against extinction.

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