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Artist's rendering of Quetzalcoatlus northropi - The Texas PterosaurQuetzalcoatlus northropi
The
Texas Pterosaur


Wing bones
(humerus, radius, ulna, carpals, metacarpals, phalanges)
TMM 41450-3
Javelina Formation, Cretaceous
Big Bend National Park
Brewster County, Texas


Quetzalcoatlus was the largest flying creature ever to evolve.  Its wingspan was somewhere around 40 feet, which is as wide as some small jet fighters.  But it was light as a kite, with hollow bones that were almost paper-thin.  Quetzalcoatlus is a member of the extinct pterosaur lineage.  Pterosaurs (pronounced tair-o-saurs) lived during most of the Mesozoic Era and diversified into a tremendous array of different forms.  Often mistakenly called “flying dinosaurs”, the pterosaurs are not members of the dinosaur lineage.  Instead they are a side branch from the main stem leading towards the dinosaurian family tree and are only “cousins” to the dinosaurs.  

Quetzalcoatlus and most other pterosaurs were probably predators and scavengers.  Several pterosaur specimens contain the skeletons of fish in their bellies, and most of these were found in marine rocks.  But many other pterosaurs, including Quetzalcoatlus, were discovered in rocks formed by lakes and streams, which indicates that they flew over dry land and probably hunted terrestrial (land-living) animals as well. 

The wings of pterosaurs were different from the wings in modern birds and bats.  In birds, the feathers of the wing are supported by the first three fingers of the hand (the thumb, index, and middle fingers).  In bats, the thumb is free and a wing membrane of skin is webbed between the remaining fingers and along the body to the legs.  But in pterosaurs, the wing was made from a skin membrane that was supported by one very long finger, the one corresponding to our “ring-finger”.  Astonishingly, flight evolved independently in pterosaurs, birds, and bats. 

Quetzalcoatlus was the largest and also one of the last of the pterosaurs.  It soared over Texas right up until the end of the Cretaceous Period, looking down on dinosaurs like Alamosaurus and Tyrannosaurus.  It did not survive in the great extinction event that marked the end of the Mesozoic Era. 

The specimen buried in the Dino Pit was cast from a specimen discovered in 1971 in Big Bend National Park by a graduate student named Douglas Lawson, who was working on his masters degree in the Department of Geological Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin, under the direction of Dr. Wann Langston, Jr.

 

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