Scientists Reveal Takeoff Technique of Prehistoric Flyer

Study unveils dinosaur's flying secrets.



** Pterosaurs ranged in size from
Quetzalcoatlus, which was as tall as a
giraffe, to Anurognathus, an insect-eater
the size of a small bird seen to the left
of Quetzalcoatlus.**
Mark Witton

Around 67 million years ago, during the Cretaceous era, an F-16-size species of dinosaur called Quetzalcoatlus flew through the skies above what is now Texas. In a study presented on Nov. 7 to the Geological Society of America, scientists demonstrated how they believe the largest flying creature in history was able to take off and land.

Fossils found near Big Bend National Park in Texas provide the clues. With a wingspan of around 34 feet, the Quetzalcoatlus stood as tall as a giraffe on its four legs. But front and hind legs were connected by a winglike membrane, and the forelegs also incorporated additional wing “panels” that unfolded for flight. The mystery was how it was able to launch, since there were no cliffs or promontories in the then-forested area from which to get a leaping start. Scientists theorize that the 155-pound, hollow-boned Quetzalcoatlus would race along a “runway” – a long stretch of open ground that sloped downward toward a lake or riverbed.

According to Sankar Chatterjee of Texas Tech University, co-author of the study, it would start out running clumsily on all fours, then rear up to its hind legs as it picked up speed and unfolded its outer wing sections. With wings flapping furiously, the Quetzalcoatlus would eventually gain lift and soar upward.

“This would be very awkward-looking,” Chatterjee told, “They’d have to run, but also need a down slope, a technique used today by hang gliders. Once in the air, though, they were magnificent gliders.”

The landing phase would have been equally amusing to watch, not unlike the stumbling, bruising technique used by albatrosses – and perhaps some weekend pilots you may know.