Absurd Creature of the Week: The 16-Foot-Tall Reptilian Stork That Delivered Death Instead of Babies
The Mesoamerican god Quetzalcoatl is one of those great all-purpose deities — in contrast to, say, Verminus, the strangely specialized Roman god of cattle worms. A feathered serpent of sorts, Quetzalcoatl not only created the cosmos and the first people, but was also in charge of the wind, using it to, you guessed it, sweep roads and destroy existence.
This blustery god lends its name to one of the largest and most impressive creatures to ever take flight: Quetzalcoatlus northropi of the Cretaceous period, a pterosaur with a wingspan of some 33 feet that stood as tall as a giraffe. Like Quetzalcoatl, it was a feathered (well, sort of — more on that later) reptile, though Quetzalcoatlus had the body of a bat and the head and neck of a stork, except instead of delivering babies it delivered death. Which in a way makes it the exact opposite of a stork.
Quetz was part of a family known as the giant azhdarchid pterosaurs, which include the similarly sized Arambourgiania philadelphiae, shown at right.
When in flight, their enormity would have prohibited them from vigorous flapping, so instead these were likely highly proficient gliders, according to Mark Witton, a paleontologist, paleoartist, and author of the book Pterosaurs. But with nowhere near a complete skeleton to work with, scientists are still trying to piece together exactly how Quetz looked and behaved. How exactly could a 16-foot-tall creature even get airborne? Why wouldn’t it just fall out of the sky?
He thinks Quetz would have been capable of covering some 10,000 miles nonstop — which is like flying from London to Albuquerque and back, or, if you prefer even bigger numbers, making 58,823.53 round trips from my apartment to nearest corner store — riding rising columns of hot air called thermals and hitting speeds of 80 mph.Quetz may have been able to stay aloft for more than a week, only intermittently flapping its enormous membranous wings, which were supported, believe it or not, by an extremely elongated finger (alas, not that finger).
Yet even given its aerial prowess,Quetz was likely not only highly comfortable on terra firma, but was also a formidable land predator. “Their legs are long, their extremities compact and padded, and their trackways reveal proficient walking abilities,” Witton said in an email interview with WIRED. “We figure that these attributes point to a lifestyle of ‘terrestrial stalking,’ where relatively small animals and nutritious plant matter were procured on the ground, a bit like the way that many storks and ground hornbills live today.”