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Quetzalcoatlus

Quetzalcoatlus (named for the Aztec feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl) was a pterodactyloid pterosaur known from the Late Cretaceous of North America (CampanianMaastrichtian stages, 84–65 ma), and one of the largest known flying animals of all time. It was a member of the Azhdarchidae, a family of advanced toothless pterosaurs with unusually long, stiffened necks.

DescriptionEdit

SizeEdit

Quetzfeedingwittonnaish2008

Fossil trackways show that pterosaurs like Quetzalcoatlus northropi were quadrupeds.

When it was first discovered, scientists estimated that the largest Quetzalcoatlus fossils came from an individual with a wingspan as large as 15.9 meters (52 feet), choosing the middle of three extrapolations from the proportions of other pterosaurs that gave an estimate of 11, 15.5 and 21 meters respectively (36 feet, 50.85 feet, 68.9 feet). In 1981, further study lowered these estimates to 11–12 meters (36–39 ft).[1] More recent estimates based on greater knowledge of azhdarchid proportions place its wingspan at 10–11 meters (33–36 ft).[2]

Mass estimates for giant azhdarchids are extremely problematic because no existing species share a similar size or body plan, and in consequence published results vary widely.[3] While some studies have historically found extremely low weight estimates for Quetzalcoatlus, as low as 70 kilograms (150 lb) for a 10-meter (32-foot-10-inch) individual, a majority of estimates published since the 2000s have been higher, around 200–250 kilograms (440–550 lb).
Azhdarchwingshapewittonnaish2008

Reconstructed wing planform of Quetzalcoatlus compared to the Wandering Albatross and the Andean Condor. (not to scale).

SkullEdit

Skull material (from smaller specimens, possibly a related species) shows that Quetzalcoatlus had a very sharp and pointed beak. That is contrary to some earlier reconstructions that showed a blunter snout, based on the inadvertent inclusion of jaw material from another pterosaur species, possibly a tapejarid or a form related to Tupuxuara. A skull crest was also present but its exact form and size are still unknown.

Discovery and speciesEdit

The first Quetzalcoatlus fossils were discovered in Texas, from the Maastrichtian Javelina Formation at Big Bend National Park (dated to around 68 million years ago[7]) in 1971 by a geology graduate student from the University of Texas at Austin's Jackson School of Geosciences, Douglas A. Lawson. The specimen consisted of a partial wing (in pterosaurs composed of the forearms and elongated fourth finger), from an individual later estimated at over 10 m (33 ft) in wingspan.[3] Lawson discovered a second site of the same age, about forty kilometers from the first, where between 1972 and 1974 he and Professor Wann Langston Jr. of the Texas Memorial Museum unearthed three fragmentary skeletons of much smaller individuals. Lawson in 1975 announced the find in an article in Science.[8] That same year, in a subsequent letter to the same journal, he made the original large specimen, TMM 41450-3, the holotype of a new genus and species, Quetzalcoatlus northropi. The genus name refers to the Aztec feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl. The specific name honors John Knudsen Northrop, the founder of Northrop, who was interested in large tailless flying wing aircraft designs resembling Quetzalcoatlus.[9] At first it was assumed that the smaller specimens were juvenile or subadult forms of the larger type. Later, when more remains were found, it was realized they could have been a separate species. This possible second species from Texas was provisionally referred to as a Quetzalcoatlus sp. by Alexander Kellner and Langston in 1996, indicating that its status was too uncertain to give it a full new species name.[6] The smaller specimens are more complete than the Q. northropi holotype, and include four partial skulls, though they are much less massive, with an estimated wingspan of 5.5 meters (18 feet).

PaleobiologyEdit

Mantell's Iguanodon restoration

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