Science & Technology

Quetzalcoatlus Was a Flying Reptile the Size of a Giraffe

Think about the biggest flying animal you've ever seen. Let's see — geese are pretty big, and despite their reputation, swans can get to be terrifyingly huge. And albatrosses — aren't those massive? Of course, there are always ostriches, but those can't fly. But Quetzalcoatlus could. And that thing was as tall as a giraffe.

Up in the Sky! It's Not a Bird or a Plane!

During the late Cretaceous era, in the waning years of the dinosaurs' reign over the planet, a giant reptile soared through the sky with a wingspan as long as a city bus. Quetzalcoatlus needed all that surface area to stay aloft because it might have weighed about 550 pounds (249 kilograms) — more than a mountain gorilla, and last we checked, gorillas don't fly. On the ground, Quetzalcoatlus would walk on four "legs," standing approximately 10 feet (3 meters) at the shoulder with a long, stiff neck topped by a skull measuring another 10 feet. In short, these things cut an impressive figure.

But how does something like this live? It's difficult to imagine. Did they nest in trees and cliffs like modern birds, or roam the plains like giraffes when they weren't flying? Or maybe they didn't spend much time on the ground at all, opting instead for a lifetime of transoceanic flights like the albatross? The sad fact is, not a lot remains of these delicately-boned behemoths, so their lifestyle is likely to remain a mystery for the foreseeable future. At least we can be sure that they flew, right? Well ... about that ...

Flier, Flier, Pants on Fire

Yes, we were heartbroken to learn that there are, in fact, some paleontologists who think that Quetzalcoatlus was just too heavy to get off the ground. Its ancestors might have flown, goes this line of thinking, but like the ostrich, this former flier traded the skies for sheer bulk. But don't think this argument is over just yet. Other estimates place the creature at a substantially lighter weight — even as low as about 154 pounds (70 kg) — which would be plenty small enough to be carried by those giant wings. After all, modern flightless birds like emus and penguins don't have much in the way of wings, but Quetzalcoatlus had no such deficiency. Since they survived for more than 130 million years with the same massive wingspan, they were probably using it for something.

Get stories like this one in your inbox or your headphones: sign up for our daily email and subscribe to the Curiosity Daily podcast.

Before birds and bats, the skies were solely the domain of pterosaurs. Discover the fascinating story of these prehistoric creatures, complete with 200 original illustrations and paintings in Mark P. Witton's "Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas April 26, 2018

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.