Quetzalcoatlus, the Feathered Serpent God

Illustration of Quetzalcoatlus pterosaurs gathering at water


Mark Stevenson/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

Quetzalcoatlus is the largest identified pterosaur that ever lived; in fact, this airplane-sized reptile of North America was the largest animal ever to take to the skies, period (if it was actually capable of flying in the first place).

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The Wingspan of Quetzalcoatlus Exceeded 30 Feet

Size comparison of the azhdarchid pterosaurs Quetzalcoatlus

Matt Martyniuk/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0


Although its exact proportions are still a matter of dispute, there's no doubt that Quetzalcoatlus possessed an enormous wingspan, exceeding 30 feet from tip to tip and possibly attaining breadths of up to 40 feet for the largest individuals--about the size of a small private jet. By way of comparison, the largest flying bird alive today, the Andean Condor, has a wingspan of only 10 feet, and most of the pterosaurs of the Cretaceous period were in that ballpark as well (and most were much smaller).

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Quetzalcoatlus Was Named After an Aztec God

Illustration of Quetzalcoatl - Aztec god

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Flying, feathered, reptilian deities have figured in Central American mythology since at least 500 A.D. The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl literally translates as "feathered serpent," and even though Quetzalcoatlus (like other pterosaurs) didn't have feathers, the reference seemed appropriate when this giant pterosaur was first described back in 1971. (And no, you shouldn't take this to mean that pterosaurs flew the skies of Central America during the reign of the Aztecs; by that time they had been extinct for 65 million years!)

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Quetzalcoatlus Took off Using Both its Front and Hind Legs

Quetzalcoatlus rendering by waterside

Mark Stevenson/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

The enormous size of Quetzalcoatlus poses some serious issues, not least of which is how it managed to launch itself into flight (if it flew at all, of course). One analysis suggests that this pterosaur vaulted itself into the air using its heavily muscled front legs, and only secondarily employed its long, spindly hind limbs, kind of like a rudder during takeoff. There's also a compelling case to be made that Quetzalcoatlus had no aerodynamic choice but to launch itself over the edge of steep cliffs!

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Quetzalcoatlus Was a Glider Rather Than an Active Flier

Illustration of quetzalcoatlus flying
Rene Kastner

Assuming that it possessed a cold-blooded metabolism, Quetzalcoatlus would have been unable to continuously flap its wings while in flight, a task that requires enormous amounts of energy — and even a pterosaur endowed with an endothermic metabolism might have been challenged by this task. According to one analysis, Quetzalcoatlus preferred to glide through the air at elevations of 10,000 to 15,000 feet and speeds as fast as 80 miles per hour, only occasionally pivoting its gigantic wings to make steep turns against the prevailing air currents.

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We're Not Even Sure If Quetzalcoatlus Flew at All!

group of giant Quetzalcoatlus, foraging on a animals in fern prairie

Witton MP, Naish D/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Just because Quetzalcoatlus was a pterosaur doesn't necessarily mean that it was capable of (or interested in) flight — witness modern birds, like penguins and ostriches, that are exclusively terrestrial. Some paleontologists insist that Quetzalcoatlus was actually adapted for life on land, and hunted prey on its two hind legs like a big, gangly theropod dinosaur. Still, it's unclear, evolutionarily speaking, why Quetzalcoatlus would have retained such huge wings if it spent all its time on the ground.

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Quetzalcoatlus Was an Azhdarchid Pterosaur

Illustration of Hatzegopteryx feeding on other dinosaur

Mark Witton/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Although it was certainly one of the biggest, Quetzalcoatlus wasn't the only plus-sized pterosaur of the late Cretaceous period. Other "azhdarchid" pterosaurs, as they're called by paleontologists, include Alanqa, Hatzegopteryx (which may actually have been bigger than Quetzalcoatlus, depending on how you interpret the fossil evidence) and the poorly understood Azhdarcho; these azhdarchids were closely related to the South American Tupuxuara and Tapejara.

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Quetzalcoatlus Likely Had a Cold-Blooded Metabolism

Quetzalcoatlus on display at the Royal Ontario Museum

Eduard Solà/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

As was the case with all pterosaurs, the wings of Quetzalcoatlus consisted of bare, thin, extended flaps of leathery skin. The complete lack of feathers (a feature not seen in any pterosaur of the Mesozoic Era, though in plenty of meat-eating dinosaurs) implies that Quetzalcoatlus possessed a reptilian, cold-blooded metabolism, in sharp contrast to the feathered theropod dinosaurs it coexisted with during the late Cretaceous period, which may well have had warm-blooded metabolisms.

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No One Knows How Much Quetzalcoatlus Weighed

Quetzalcoatlus on beach

Johnson Mortimer/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Perhaps because paleontologists can't quite wrap their minds around a (supposedly) flying reptile the size of MIG fighter jet, there has been considerable disagreement about how much Quetzalcoatlus weighed. Early estimates posited a relatively svelte (and aerodynamic) 200 to 300 pounds, which would entail light, air-filled bones, but more recent studies suggest that this pterosaur may have weighed as much as a quarter of a ton (yet more evidence for an exclusively terrestrial lifestyle).

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The Diet of Quetzalcoatlus Is Still a Mystery

Bones of Quetzalcoatlus

Yinan Chen/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

When Quetzalcoatlus was first discovered, its long, narrow beak suggested that this pterosaur skimmed over the shallow seas of late Cretaceous North America, spearing fish and small marine reptiles; one paleontologist has speculated that it was incapable of flight and preferred to scavenge the corpses of deceased titanosaurs. It now seems more likely that Quetzalcoatlus (whether or not it was able to fly) hunted an assortment of terrestrial animals, including small dinosaurs.

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Quetzalcoatlus Went Extinct 65 Million Years Ago

Cretaceous Paleogene Extinction Event with quetzalcoatlus in sky


Mark Stevenson/UIG/Getty Images

As any Triceratops or Tyrannosaurus Rex will tell you, sheer size is no insurance policy against oblivion. Along with its fellow pterosaurs, Quetzalcoatlus went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period, succumbing to the same environmental pressures as its dinosaur and marine reptile cousins (including a severe disruption of the food chain caused by the disappearance of vegetation) in the wake of the K/T meteor impact.

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Strauss, Bob. "Quetzalcoatlus, the Feathered Serpent God." ThoughtCo, Jul. 30, 2021, thoughtco.com/quetzalcoatlus-the-feathered-serpent-god-1093332. Strauss, Bob. (2021, July 30). Quetzalcoatlus, the Feathered Serpent God. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/quetzalcoatlus-the-feathered-serpent-god-1093332 Strauss, Bob. "Quetzalcoatlus, the Feathered Serpent God." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/quetzalcoatlus-the-feathered-serpent-god-1093332 (accessed June 10, 2023).