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Palaeontologists figure out how a pterosaur the size of a doubledecker bus was able to fly © James Kuether

Palaeontologists figure out how a pterosaur the size of a double-decker bus was able to fly

Published: 08th December, 2021 at 16:17

Quetzalcoatlus, the largest known animal capable of flight, launched itself into the air using its legs.

With a wingspan the length of a London Routemaster bus, the giant pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus is the largest known animal to ever take to the sky. But as there are only a limited numbers of fossilised bones to go on, figuring out exactly how this prehistoric behemoth got airborne has mostly been limited to speculation.


Now, a team of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin think they have the answer: Quetzalcoatlus likely leapt 3 metres into the air before flapping its gigantic wings and lifting off.

The “Texas Pterosaur’, as it is sometimes known, was first discovered in Big Bend National Park in 1971. However, apart from some initial descriptions of the bones, almost no scientific studies have been carried out on the enigmatic animal.

“This is the first time that we have had any kind of comprehensive study,” said Matthew Brown, director of The University of Texas at Austin’s Vertebrate Palaeontology Collections at the Jackson School of Geosciences. “Even though Quetzalcoatlus has been known for 50 years, it has been poorly known.”

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The team made the discovery by studying all confirmed and suspected Quetzalcoatlus bones, along with other pterosaur fossils recovered from Big Bend. This enabled them to identify a smaller species of Quetzalcoatlus with a 5m wingspan. They then pieced together an almost complete skeleton of this smaller species and it scaled up to the size of Quetzalcoatlus.

The two Quetzalcoatlus species both called Big Bend home about 70 million years ago. Whereas the smaller species most likely lived in flocks, the larger species may have lived hunting alone in the rivers and streams much like the modern-day heron.

Darren Naish, a paleozoologist and pterosaur expert who was not involved with the research, said: “To say that this work is long awaited is something of an understatement. The good news is that it very much delivers, providing the definite treatment of this iconic animal.


“Never before has so much detailed information on azhdarchids (the pterosaur family that includes Quetzalcoatlus) been gathered in the same place, this meaning that the work will serve as the standard go-to study of this group for years – probably decades – to come.”


Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.


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