|A giant azhdarchid compared to a giraffe. |
Illustration by Mark Witton/University of Portsmouth.
In 1971, a student from the University of Texas working at Big Bend National Park discovered a long, hollow fossil bone that was from an enormous azhdarchid wing. Excavations recovered more wing bones, but no body bones could be found. It was named Quetzalcoatlus northropi, after the feathered snake god worshipped by the Aztecs. Eventually, other specimens of Quetzalcoatlus were found at the park. These specimens were smaller but more complete than the original, and by comparing them with the massive bones of the original, they were able to calculate the body size of the original specimen. This creature had an estimated wingspan of 10 meters or more and a height of over 5 meters. With a massive, elongate head, long, stiff neck and long hind limbs, this was a real-life dragon (minus the fire-breathing of course!) and the largest flying creature to have ever been found.
Despite their huge size, azhdarchids were able to quickly launch themselves into flight from level ground by leaping from all four limbs from a standstill, without the need of cliffs. Azhdarchids were most-likely flap-gliders—capable of short bursts of powered flight while covering long distances by soaring on thermal currents.
|A group of Quetzalcoatlus northropi, foraging|
on a Cretaceous fern prairie. Illustration by
Mark Witton/University of Portsmouth.