The UMMP’s new location in the Biological Sciences Building now features a life-sized reconstruction of Quetzalcoatlus northropi, a giant pterosaur. Known from bones from Texas, Quetzalcoatlus nothropi clocks in as Maastrichtian in age, at the very tail end of the ‘Age of Dinosaurs’. The model has a 35-foot wingspan and weighs over 600 pounds. The real Quetzalcoatlus northropi was this big, but it would have weighed less.
Pterosaurs are flying reptiles from the Mesozoic Era (250 to 66 million years ago). They are related to dinosaurs, but are not dinosaurs themselves. Instead, they are a distinct group composed of 130 species (that we know of). They flew with leathery wings supported by their arms and a greatly elongated fourth (ring, from a human perspective) finger.
So, what is Quetzalcoatlus? Quetzalcoatlus is one of the last surviving types of pterosaur. Quetzalcoatlus is a genus that contains two species. The giant species, Quetzalcoatlus northropi, is represented in the fossil record by only one individual. Its congener, Quetzalcoatlus sp. (called sp. because it has not been officially named), is known from about 10 individuals that are about half the size of Quetzalcoatlus northropi. Because there are so many fossils of Quetzalcoatlus sp., we use this species to estimate what Quetzalcoatlus northropi looked like.
For many people seeing this model for the first time, the head seems way too large. Would Quetzalcoatlus northropi really have a head this long? The answer is maybe. We don’t have skull fossils from Quetzalcoatlus northropi, so why does this reconstruction have a head 4 times the length of its torso?
Having a big head is characteristic of pterosaurs. Most pterosaurs have skulls that are at least half as long as their torso. Across pterosaur evolution, skulls get even longer. By the latest Cretaceous, we see Quetzalcoatlus sp. with a head that was 3.5 times the length of its torso! Even if our giant Quetzalcoatlus northropi model was scaled up exactly from its smaller cousin, it would still have a very big head. Quetzalcoatlus has another giant relative called Hatzegopteryx, from Romania. This giant Romanian pterosaur was almost as big as Quetzalcoatlus northropi and it has a skull that is very wide, although its total length was not fossilized. The combination of width measurements from Hatzegopteryx and proportions from Quetzalcoatlus sp. lead some pterosaur experts to estimate that Quetzalcoatlus northropi really did have a head this big.
Another intriguing question is whether a pterosaur this large could fly. That is a topic the experts argue over often! Current research at the UMMP has found evidence that even the largest pterosaurs could fly. Stay tuned to find out more!
PhD Candidate, Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences
Acknowledgments: Our reconstruction was made by Blue Rhino Studios with the help of paleontologist Michael Habib and the University of Southern California. Our Exhibit Content Specialist is Michael Cherney.