How bout' a breakdown on the biggest thing to ever take to the skies? Quetzalcoatlus! (or possibly hatzegopteryx)
The pterosaurs in general are one of my favorite types of animal, but since you asked, I’m going to talk about the biggest - which also, coincidentally, happens to be the best.
Quetzalcoatlus - named after Quetzalcoatl, the benevolent feathered serpent god of Aztec mythology - was perhaps the largest flying animal of all time. Seriously, I can’t stress this enough. Here’s a size comparison with a human and a giraffe.
This animal was so gargantuan that serious doubt has been cast on whether or not it could actually fly. No one is certain, however, for a couple reasons:
It’s incredibly difficult to calculate how much pterosaurs this large weighed, since no comparable animal exists today. Estimates range from 150 to 500 pounds, which could impact the possibility of flight in a variety of ways.
The biomechanics of pterosaur flight are notoriously poorly understood. Their anatomies are not directly comparable to any flying animals alive today, and an exact model of pterosaur flying abilities has never been successfully created.
This has led to an incredibly widespread array of theories as to Quetzalcoatlus’ aerial capabilities, ranging from “it was completely flightless” to “it could fly for a straight week at 80 miles an hour”. Personally, I feel like the reality is somewhere in between. If you ask me, Quetzalcoatlus was probably capable of flight, but probably spent most of its time on the ground. Speaking of which…
Quetzalcoatlus’ lifestyle is also a subject of debate. Early reconstructions portray it living a seabird-like lifestyle, but this is unlikely; Quetzalcoatlus lived in an arid inland environment, and lacked the necessary adaptations for skimming or diving. More modern reconstructions, like the one above, portray it feeding like a ground hornbill, foraging in the grass for smaller vertebrate prey. And by “smaller vertebrates”, I mean “dinosaurs, probably”.
Quetzalcoatlus has since been discovered to belong to an entire family of gargantuan pterosaurs, known as the “azdarchids”, after the Persian mythical creature Azi Dahaka. They were some of the last pterosaurs, but were extremely successful, and lived on every continent throughout the Late Cretaceous.
One of these animals was found in Romania, and named Hatzegopteryx, after the Hateg Basin in which its fossils were discovered. However, based on closer inspection of its bones, Hatzegopteryx may or may not be the same animal as Quetzalcoatlus, a native of the United States. This may or may not prove that Quetzalcoatlus was some sort of globe-trotting power-flyer. It’s too soon to say.
Honestly, that’s part of what makes Quetzalcoatlus - and the pterosaurs in general - so interesting. It’s such an iconic image of the Age of Dinosaurs, but we know extremely little about it. Even professional paleontologists know comparatively little about Quetzalcoatlus, in comparison with some of the dinosaurs that lived in the same place and time.
Keep an eye on this blog for a much longer, more in-depth post that might help shine a light on the mysteries of pterosaur evolution…
Inspired by the nest parasitism idea mentioned here, here’s a quick sketch of a young Hatzegopteryx in a Eurazhdarcho nest having a snack. How did the mother lay the egg in the nest? Well… life finds a way?
(I have no idea what pterosaur nests are supposed to look like.)