Friday, March 1, 2013

Pterosaur Week: Quetzalcoatlus.

Sometimes, one wonders why certain dinosaurs get popular and others remain obscure. Tyrannosaurus rex was not the largest carnivorous dinosaur, for example. Pterosaurs also have an excellent example of this in Pteranodon, which was not the largest and not even the most dragonlike of the pterosaurs. It's a fairly simple bat-lizard-bird creature; just about the only outstanding thing outside from the very weird identity of "pterosaur" is the crest, which we will get to in Pteranodon's entry.

To make up for the gross misjudgement of popular culture...this:

That monster of a pterosaur is Quetzalcoatlus. Yes, that name does come from the Aztec serpent god, Quetzalcoatl. This massive flyer was around during the Late Cretaceous, sharing the land and skies with Pteranodon, T-Rex, and Triceratops. Nobody is really sure what it ate, but the current theory is that it behaved much like a stork.

Quetzalcoatlus has one trait that sets it apart from most "standard" pterosaurs - a long, stiff neck made of perfectly circular vertebrae. Attached to this long neck is a head with a long, pointed beak like the head of a spear. This is normal for the group of pterosaurs called azdharchids - literally, pterosaurs named after a Persian dragon. All of them have long, slender necks that make one wonder how they could fly at all. A fair amount of them are also crested. Impressive creatures, in any case.

So a guy, a giraffe, and a stork-lizard walk into a bar.

Azhdarchid pterosaurs, including Quetzalcoatlus, were the largest pterosaurs in existence. Quetzalcoatlus had a wingspan some 13 meters (~39 feet) across. The beak alone was 8 feet from tip to base. Although Quetzalcoatlus cannot truly claim the title of "biggest," it was pretty impressive. Instead of being compared to other flying birds in size, Quetzy is usually compared to giraffes owing to the long neck and possibly common quadrupedal posture. That's what we're looking at: a giant, flying giraffe that may well have killed things.

We do not know everything about Quetzalcoatlus, however.  We have height and width (including wingspan), but not weight. Most proportions were based off of either extant flying animals (birds, bats) or other pterosaurs (in Quetzy's case, other azhdarchids). This missing data is actually a problem for most pterosaurs, simply because they're so different from any other flying animal, past or present. There are also a few odd azhdarchid pterosaur fossils that may or may not be Quetzalcoatlus, leaving the status of "largest" slightly up for debate. For now, all we can say is "that was one big, alien-looking pterosaur." The largest pterosaur that we can say for sure, in fact.


Although Pteranodon and the not-pterodactyl remain the most common presentations of pterosaurs in popular media, Quetzalcoatlus has not gone unnoticed. As in the screenshot above, Quetzy remains popular on shows that involve a large variety of prehistoric life. One series gave it ultraviolet vision for a reason that didn't quite make sense. There's a lot of creative potential to be had!

If Pteranodon is popular solely because it's the closest thing we have to a flying dragon, take a look at scale size comparisons of Quetzalcoatlus and a human.If that isn't a wyvern waiting to happen, I don't know what is.

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