Largest Flying Animal Ever Was a Scientific Oddity

by Victoria Santiago

The largest flying animal to ever exist lived over 67 million years ago. New research has given us a better idea of how this goliath managed to fly and take off. The research spans both the Quetzalcoatlus northropi and its smaller relative, the Quetzalcoatlus lawsoni.

Everything we know about Q. northropi is based on hundreds of fossils that have been found in Texas. In the past, how the large animal took off has been up for debate. There were three viable options. For one, some people thought that it would run to build up speed, much like an albatross, and then take off. Others thought that maybe it would rock back and forth on its wingtips like a bat. Thirdly, and lastly, others suggested that maybe it didn’t even actually fly at all.

A recent study offers a new perspective on the take-off methods of the Q. northropi. It suggests that the pterosaur would leap about eight feet into the air before flapping its wings and flying. Leaping into the air before flight would ensure that the animal’s wings could clear the environment around it. The study also suggests that the animal would land similarly to an airplane. It would slow down in the air before gliding to the ground, and once on the ground, it would take a small hop to get stabilized. This method is backed up by fossilized tracks that have been found in France.

The Largest Flying Animal Mimicked Modern-Day Birds

While the pterosaur was on the ground, it would behave much like a modern-day heron does. That means that it would pick food out of the water. Namely, fish and small amphibians. While in the air, it behaves like a condor. Scientists believe that the flying animal would use its head to help it complete turns, and would soar through the air rather than continuously flapping its wings. Like the birds we have today, scientists think that the wings were only attached to the front limbs of the pterosaur.

The smaller pterosaur that was recently discovered, Q. lawsoni, has some structural differences from the bigger species. Mostly, the structure of the skull and spine differs from that of the Q. northropi. Scientists are discovering more information every day. They are just now beginning to understand the animal – in the past, the bones have not been processed or analyzed correctly. Matthew Brown, a paleontologist at the University of Texas at Austin, says that this is the first time we’ll be able to have a comprehensive look at the animal. “Even though Quetzalcoatlus has been known for 50 years, it has been poorly known,” Brown stated.

So far, this new research has been released in scientific journals, but there’s still so much more to learn. Now that we have a better understanding of the animal, it should make everything else fall into place a little bit easier. Not only are they the largest animal to ever fly, but they were also the first. They are legendary, to say the least.