Quetzalcoatlus was a pterosaur from the Late Cretaceous and the largest creature to ever take flight. It was so large, in fact, that scientists have long been puzzled about how these jet-sized behemoths were able to liftoff. Now new research out of Texas Tech University has blown the lid off of previous theories and postulated a stunning new proposal: that they would have used naturally formed ancient "airports," complete with runways conveniently located where headwinds were strong, according to Physorg.com.
To properly imagine this, it helps to know just how impressive these gargantuan flying dinosaurs really were. An adult would have had a 34-foot wingspan, roughly the size of an F-16 fighter jet. They would have weighed 155 pounds, but they were lighter than they would have looked, thanks to hollow bones. Standing on the ground, they would have towered at a height similar to that of a giraffe.
So just imagine a chimeric giraffe with a 34-foot wingspan flying overhead. That is one shadow you probably wouldn't ever want to have hovering over you.
Previous theories have suggested that Quetzalcoatlus might have lifted off by using its limbs to pole-vault into the sky, similar to how vampire bats fling themselves into flight. But there's one glaring problem with that theory: "A standing takeoff of flying of such a heavy animal violates the laws of physics," said Sankar Chatterjee, curator of paleontology at the Museum of Texas Tech University.
Chatterjee and his colleagues used computer simulations to test the theory but couldn't make it work. Basically, the animal's wings were so long that they would have slapped against the ground on the first downstroke, resulting in a crash landing. What works for a tiny animal like a bat simply isn't feasible for such a massive creature.
Chatterjee found that flight power systematically decreases with body size, so that once a creature grows to a certain size, a flapping liftoff would require more power than is possible. Just imagine how impossible it would seem for an airplane to take off by flapping its wings. (That would have to be one strong downstroke!) It's just not a power-efficient model.
The rational alternative for such a large animal would have been to take off much like airplanes do: by picking up speed while racing down a runway.
"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," explained Chatterjee. "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."
A better comparison might be how large birds like albatrosses take off. The only downside to such take offs is that what goes up, must come down — and landings probably would have been clumsy and embarrassing for these monsters much like they are for albatrosses. Quetzalcoatlus was significantly larger than an albatross, however, and as they say: the bigger they are, the harder they fall. In other words, it's possible that the most intimidating flyer to ever live might actually have been a big baffoon.
In the air, though, Quetzalcoatlus would have been a magnificant glider. It would have been a sight to see. Unless you were on the menu, that is.