Quetzalcoatlus

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Vertebrata

  • Q. northropi Lawson, 1975 (type)

Quetzalcoatlus was a pterodactyloid pterosaur known from the Late Cretaceous of North America (Maastrichtian stage, 70–65.5 ma). It was a member of the Azhdarchidae, a family of advanced toothless pterosaurs with unusually long, stiffened necks. Its name comes from the Mesoamerican feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl.

Contents

Description

Skull material (from the unnamed smaller species) shows that Quetzalcoatlus had a very sharp and pointed beak, 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 present but its exact form and size is still unknown.[1]

Size

When it was first discovered, scientists estimated that the largest Quetzalcoatlus fossils came from an individual with a wingspan as large as 15.5 meters, choosing the middle of three extrapolations from the proportions of other pterosaurs that gave an estimate of 11, 15.5 and 21 meters respectively. In 1981, further study lowered these estimates to 11–12 meters (36–39 feet).[2] More recent estimates based on greater knowledge of azhdarchid proportions place its wingspan at 10–11 meters (33–36 ft).[3]

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.[4] A 2002 study suggested a body mass of 90–120 kilograms (200–260 lb) for Quetzalcoatlus, considerably lower than most other recent estimates.[5] Higher estimates tend toward 200–250 kilograms (440–550 lb).[6]

Discovery and species

The first Quetzalcoatlus fossils were discovered in Texas (from the Maastrichtian Javelina Formation at Big Bend National Park) 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 to 10 m (33 ft) in wingspan.[4] Lawson discovered a second site of the same age, about forty kilometer 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.[7] 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 aircraft designs resembling Quetzalcoatlus.[8] 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.[1] 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 ft).[9]

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