Paleontologists digging at a quarry in eastern Spain have unearthed remains of
what they believe could be the largest flying animal yet discovered. The
researchers estimate that the adult wingspan of the ancient reptile ranged from 5
meters to as much as 12 m–larger than that of an F-16 fighter aircraft.
David M. Unwin, a vertebrate paleontologist at Humboldt University in Berlin, says
he and his colleagues have exhumed as many as 40 bones or bone fragments of what
appears to be a new species of giant pterosaur. Most of the well-preserved
fragments were pieces of vertebrae and neck bones from adult animals.
The scientists recovered the 70-million-year-old fossils–along with those of fish, crocodiles, and dinosaurs–from a 3-m-thick layer of siltstone in a quarry near La Solana, about 40 kilometers southwest of Valencia. Unwin reported the team’s findings last week at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Bozeman, Mont.
The broad array of sizes among mature members of the newly found pterosaur species
mirrors a trend apparent in at least four other species of giant flying reptile,
but not in most living animals. In these pterosaurs, the size range of bones
suggests that the largest adults were from two to three times the size of the
smallest ones. If that were true among people, there could be 12-foot-tall
professional basketball players.
“Pterosaurs had a weird growth pattern,” says Timothy Rowe, a vertebrate
paleontologist at the University of Texas at Austin. The small individuals found
at La Solana may still have been growing, he notes. Also, the Spanish cache of
fossils may be too fragmentary for paleontologists to claim that the newly found
species is bigger than Quetzalcoatlus northropi. A single, almost complete
specimen of Q. northropi unearthed in Texas in 1971 represents a pterosaur with a wingspan of 11 m.