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On Campus

September 13, 1999 - VOL. 27, NO. 1


Big bird takes flight from ceiling of Texas Memorial Museum


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Mary Lenz

 

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The largest winged creature ever discovered on Earth has taken flight again from the ceiling of The Texas Memorial Museum at UT Austin.

Named after Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent god of ancient Mexico, this particular flying dinosaur is being displayed in the form of a skillfully executed, fiberglass model of fossilized bones. The bones of the pterodactyl itself are too precious, fragile and downright heavy to display in simulated flight. In life, some 70 million years ago, the creature had a wingspan of more than 40 feet, roughly the same wingspan as the F15, the frontline U.S. Navy jet fighter.

"This is the biggest flying animal ever known, the biggest flying animal period," said Dr. Edward Theriot, director of the Texas Memorial Museum, which is celebrating its 60th birthday by inaugurating the new display, which has been on pubic view since Sept. 1. The museum had been closed for several weeks for renovations.

This particular specimen of Texas Pterosaur (pronounced tare-oh-sore) is the largest of the pterodactyl species so far found on earth. It last flew near the shores of ancient oceans that have become the desert lands of today's Big Bend National Park. Despite its enormous size, originally, the bones of this fish-eating creature probably weighed only 400 to 500 pounds. The problem is, in fossil form, it has become much heavier.

"The pterosaurs had very thin and very hollow bones, so the pterodactyl itself was very, very light," said Theriot. "What happens in the course of fossilization, is that the bones fill with mud and the mud becomes rock over millions of years. This means that if you had a complete skeleton, you would not want to suspend it because it would weigh thousands of pounds."

The specimen was found on federal lands in Brewster County in 1971 by UT graduate student Douglas Lawson and Dr. Wann Langston of the UT Austin department of geological sciences. The big bird was dubbed Quetzalcoatlus northropi, (Ketz-al-coe-at-lus north-rop-ee), and dated based on the late Cretaceous period sediments that surrounded it.

The two paleontologists found a complete left humerus, the bird's equivalent of an upper arm bone, with bits and pieces of the radius and the ulna, or the bones between the elbow and the wrist. Also found were bits and pieces of bones that make up the greater part of the wing, that would be roughly the equivalent of fingers in a human being.

Theriot said that for the replica, "the rest of the body was reconstructed from parts of about 20 similar specimens found at the same location. Those parts were then 'scaled up' to create the scientists' conception of what the whole specimen must have looked like."

The replica is made by putting a soft latex jacket around fossilized pieces to make a mold. The mold is later filled with epoxy or fiberglass. The first cast of the piece of fossil becomes the master cast and is saved, because it will last longer than the mold.

"For pieces (of the skeleton) that might be missing or that you have to scale to size to match the other pieces, you actually sculpt in some way, generally out of clay," Theriot said. He said the resulting pieces "are really quite light."

The pterosaur's actual remains are housed at the Texas Memorial Museum for research, and only rarely displayed. Real bits of bone remain as part of the fossil, but are extremely delicate.

The museum has a collection of more than 5 million objects from firearms to fossils, nearly all from the Texas area. These objects include 210,000 vertebrate paleontology fossils from across the state as well as 3.8 million gems, minerals, nonvertebrate and geology specimens.

The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is free.

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September 13, 1999
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at The University of Texas at Austin