Q is for Quetzalcoatlus

Dragon dinosaur. Like Turu the Terrible (that was another Q…more on that in a sec).

Quetzalcoatlus was the largest flying animal ever discovered. Fifty foot wingspan, like a small aircraft. In fact, the first paleontologist named it Q. northropi after–you might guess it– a Northrop aircraft. Massive jaws. As a tall as a giraffe. 500 pounds.

Not, technically, a dinosaur. No anorbital fenestra, wrong kind of hips. Q. northropi belonged under the group called pterosaurs, flying reptiles that had branched off the reptile line before the dinosaurs were completely upright.

But who cares? Look at the size of the wings!

Plus, the perfect candidate for a “Q.”

The First “Q” I Thought Of

“Turu the Terrible” from “Jonny Quest,” 1964, Hanna-Barbera.

When I was laying out my A to Z grid, I original thought of the TV show “Jonny Quest,” because it was a favorite when I was a kid, and it had that super creepy pterodactyl on it. “Turu the Terrible,” he was named. He was carrying off some generic natives, i.e. indigenous people in South America. The adventure-science foursome traced him back to his handler, another old creepy guy in a wheelchair.

What was remarkable about the 1960s Quest was that it was relatively accurate, for its time. Not accurate so much–it was a cartoon and generally used the “monster of the week” formula. But it did try to be a little scientific, and while pterodactyls don’t still exist, Turu was about the right size. He walked awkwardly on his hands and feet, like a chimpanzee, but the way such creatures walked.

And that bizarre throat warbling cry. Still creeps me out. If you’ve never seen any “Jonny Quest” episodes, I do recommend them. Consider the context. At the time, so much information about dinosaurs was outdated and had still had them lumbering and dragging their tails. “Turu” was pretty innovative for its time.

Now, back to the Quetzalcoatlus, who was neither a cartoon nor a dinosaur. He still gets the nod.

There are extinct organisms that defy the imagination and push the boundaries of what we knew life was capable of. We name them accordingly, with etymologies taken from mythology and history.

“Morphology and taxonomy of Quetzalcoatlus” in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology
Comparison of biggest Qu found to humans, wikipedia

Giant in the Sky

The first Quetz… I’m going to just type “Qu” from now and you’ll know what I mean … Qu’s arm bone and part of a wing were discovered in 1971 in a Texas fossil site near Big Bend. Doug Lawson was a geology student in Texas who went on to get his PhD, where else?, but from Berkeley. He estimated the size of the flying reptile, based on the parts he found, to perhaps have a wingspan of 52 feet. Other smaller fossils were found, which might have either been juveniles, or the one he found might have been particularly large.

Original Science journal cover, comparing Qu to a tailless plane.

What was particularly interesting about the skeleton was the length of the neck as well as the wings, compared to the super short tail. The Northrop designs were like that of the Stealth bomber, very short tail, very long wings. Qu was very popular from that first description in Science magazine, and several museums have acquired skeletons or created facsimiles, from Chicago to Pittsburgh to the West Coast.

No Choppers, Though, They Did Fly

However, this particular type of flying pterosaur did not have any teeth. As giant and as scary looking as it must have seemed, it did not have any dental structure of significance. Many birds don’t have teeth, although some of the pterosaurs did and some did not. So how did these things feed, and on what?

The Qu’s feeding ground. Beware you small thecodonts! Wikipedia.

How did they feed? Well, anyway they liked, but… There was a lot of discussion over whether they skimmed the water for fish, scavenged on dead animals, or simply stalked around and grabbed whatever couldn’t run away fast enough. The most recent conclusions is the latter. The problem with skimming is that those giant wings would create so much drag, that it would be too energy-inefficient. Better to land and just !gulp! a few small prosauropods as a snack.

Smaller Qu skeleton in a Canadian museum. Wikipedia.

One paleontologist came up with a controversial proposal in 2010 that Qu really couldn’t fly. He suggested that the body size and weight had been underestimated, and that it was just so big, it must have been flightless. He included lots of computer 3-D models of ducks, ostriches, and Qus. It’s an interesting idea, right? Now, I’m just an amateur dino enthusiast, no real paleontology or biology degree, but if these skeletons are put together in a remotely correct way, that’s a really inefficient design. All that wingspan and it’s not used for anything because it’s too big? Darwin would have said that such a creature didn’t adapt very well. It was bigger than humans, sure, but it wasn’t bigger than predators. Something like that couldn’t run away. Ostriches manage because they run 40 miles an hour.

Other scientists came along and did more math and proved him wrong. But, sometimes, the reason to put out a wacky idea–other than you have to publish something if you’re a scientist–is so that other people can come up with how to refute it. The new paleobiologists emphasized the size of breastbone of our Que body and how many muscles that suggested might have been able to keep the wings up. They think that Qu could fly 80 miles an hour and perhaps go as for as far as 8000 miles. (The length of Asia. Can you imagine?)

Partial remains of statue of Quetzalcoatl. Photo from pinterest.

Giant Feathered Serpents

There’s long been speculation about where all the stories of dragons came from, and there are a lot of possibilities. But the bones of the pterosaurs like Qu have to be part of the story. Those stories are worldwide, too… (sounds like a future blog, hmmm the history of dragon stories).

The Aztecs talked about something like a dragon, the namesake. Quetzalcoatl was a Mexican god, named in the Nahautl language as “plumed serpent.” The feathered snake. Dragon, I’d say.

He was related to the wind and the planet Venus and wore a conch shell around his neck, the spiral, the wind, the chaos of nature. Maybe the Aztecs also found their own bones, had their own paleontologists who reconstructed the skeletons and wondered about the old gods who ruled the sky. It might make perfect sense for them to name their god Quetzalcoatl after the ideas, so that Doug Lawson and his friends could come along centuries later and dig up fossils and apply a name that already fit like a glove.

A perfect name for a sky god that could sail across a continent. Just not a dinosaur.

3 Replies to “Q is for Quetzalcoatlus”

    1. When I first thought “I’ll write about dinosaurs,” it’s a little bit of a whim. I like them. I didn’t know I liked them this much. I actually didn’t know that much about them. Truthfully the science, has been a hard slog for me; I don’t understand a lot of it. But I’m starting to connect the dots. I want to go back to school now and get a paleontology degree. Not to do any digging of course just ’cause it’s so interesting.

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