Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Giant pterosaur needed cliffs, downward-sloping runways to taxi, awkwardly take off into air

Date:
November 7, 2012
Source:
Texas Tech University
Summary:
Quetzalcoatlus pushed the very boundaries of size to the brink, considered the largest flying animal yet to be discovered. Any larger, and it would have had to walk. But its bulk caused researchers to wonder how such a heavy animal with relatively flimsy wings became airborne.

A fully articulated skeleton of Quetzalcoatlus hangs in the Museum of Texas Tech University. The animal stood as tall as a giraffe and needed a slope to taxi into the air.
Credit: Texas Tech University

It weighed about 155 pounds and had a 34-foot wingspan, close to the size of an F-16 fighter jet. A five-foot-long skull looked down from a standing height similar to that of a modern giraffe. By all measures, the ancient pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus was a Texas-sized giant of the air and created a frightening shadow as it soared across the sky.

It pushed the very boundaries of size to the brink, considered the largest flying animal yet to be discovered. Any larger, and it would have had to walk. But its bulk caused researchers to wonder how such a heavy animal with relatively flimsy wings became airborne.

Sankar Chatterjee, Horn Professor of Geosciences and curator of paleontology at the Museum of Texas Tech University, will describe the flight dynamics of this animal on November 7 during the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Charlotte, N.C.

Using a computer simulation, Chatterjee and his colleagues unraveled the secrets of the flight for the massive pterosaur, discovered in the Big Bend area of Texas, which has captured the imagination of paleontologists and public so profoundly.

"This animal probably flew like an albatross or a frigate bird in that it could soar and glide very well," Chatterjee said. "It spent most of its time in the air. But when it comes to takeoff and landing, they're so awkward that they had to run. If it were taking off from a cliff, then it was OK. But if Quetzalcoatlus were on the ground, it probably had to find a sloping area like a river bank, and then run quickly on four feet, then two to pick up enough power to get into the air. It needed an area to taxi."

Speculation exists on what this animal looked like, Chatterjee said. Some researchers suggested recently that Quetzalcoatlus could have weighed up to 550 pounds and used forelimbs as a catapult in the same manner of a common vampire bat to create a standing takeoff.

However, Chatterjee said that computer modeling proved what is possible for a tiny, lightweight, 1-ounce bat appeared impossible for an animal 10,000 times heavier.

Flight performance seems to degrade systematically with body size because power decreases with body size, he said. Above a particular size, the available power is insufficient and flapping flight is not possible. The animal would not be able to maintain height when flying at its maximum power speed and exert full power.

"Its enormous wings must have been difficult to manage," Chatterjee said. "Each wing had at least a 16-foot span, so during its full downstroke it would smash its wing resulting in crash landing. A standing takeoff of flying of such a heavy animal violates the laws of physics."

Like today's condors and other large birds, Quetzalcoatlus probably relied on updraft to remain in the air, Chatterjee said. It was a superb glider with a gliding angle close to two degrees and a cruising speed of 36 miles per hour. Their bones were entirely hollow, filled with air, lightweight and strong. This is how such a large animal could weigh so little and still grow to its enormous size.

The animal had high-aspect-ratio wings like those of modern seabirds, meaning the wings were long, narrow, flat and pointed. It soared in open airspace by exploiting thermals or wind gradient above the ocean surface. Trading for size, the wings were structurally weak for vigorous flapping, causing the pterosaur difficulty during ground takeoff.

"Sooner or later the animal would come to the ground, especially during foraging and nesting," Chatterjee said. "Like albatrosses and the Great Kori bustards, which weigh 20 to 40 pounds, ground takeoff was agonizing and embarrassing for Quetzalcoatlus. With a slight headwind and as little as a 10-degree downhill slope, an adult would be able to take off in a bipedal running start to pick up flying speed, just like a hang glider pilot. Once it got off the ground, the giant pterodactyl entered into thermal and soared like majestic masters of the air."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Texas Tech University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Texas Tech University. "Giant pterosaur needed cliffs, downward-sloping runways to taxi, awkwardly take off into air." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 November 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/11/121107132103.htm>.
Texas Tech University. (2012, November 7). Giant pterosaur needed cliffs, downward-sloping runways to taxi, awkwardly take off into air. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 22, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/11/121107132103.htm
Texas Tech University. "Giant pterosaur needed cliffs, downward-sloping runways to taxi, awkwardly take off into air." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/11/121107132103.htm (accessed October 22, 2014).

Share This



More Plants & Animals News

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Cadaver Dogs Aid Search for More Victims of Suspected Indiana Serial Killer

Cadaver Dogs Aid Search for More Victims of Suspected Indiana Serial Killer

Reuters - US Online Video (Oct. 21, 2014) Police in Gary, Indiana are using cadaver dogs to search for more victims after a suspected serial killer confessed to killing at least seven women. Linda So reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
White Lion Cubs Unveiled to the Public

White Lion Cubs Unveiled to the Public

Reuters - Light News Video Online (Oct. 21, 2014) Visitors to Belgrade zoo meet a pair of three-week-old lion cubs for the first time. Tara Cleary reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
'Cadaver Dog' Sniffs out Human Remains

'Cadaver Dog' Sniffs out Human Remains

AP (Oct. 21, 2014) Where's a body buried? Buster's nose can often tell you. He's a cadaver dog, specially trained to find human remains and increasingly being used by law enforcement and accepted in courts. These dogs are helping solve even decades-old mysteries. (Oct. 21) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
White Lion Cubs Born in Belgrade Zoo

White Lion Cubs Born in Belgrade Zoo

AFP (Oct. 20, 2014) Two white lion cubs, an extremely rare subspecies of the African lion, were recently born at Belgrade Zoo. They are being bottle fed by zoo keepers after they were rejected by their mother after birth. Duration: 00:42 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins