Sleeping Amongst Giants

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Science Hub at The Field Museum in Chicago. Photo by L.J. Bailey.

Last night I had the privilege of spending the night with Patagotitan mayorum, believed to be the largest dinosaur ever discovered. Known as Máximo, he is definitely “maximum” at 122 feet long and 28 feet tall, weighing in at 70 tons. The event was called Sleepover with the Titanosaur, and I had so much fun.

As interesting as Máximo was, what stole the show for me were the new pterosaurs. I think I am stuck in the dark ages of research that talked about pterodactyls roaming the sky and referred to them as dinosaurs. The diversity of these animals was astonishing. Some of them looked to me like a mish-mash of various animals today squished together in an experiment by Dr. Frankenstein.

Pterosaurs are not dinosaurs, no matter what we the public have been taught. There are

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Quetzalcoatlus northropi in flight at The Field Museum in Chicago. I called this one “Dali.” Photo by L.J. Bailey.

close relatives of the dinosaurs and are the first vertebrates to have achieved powered flight (versus gliding). They were incredibly successful and lasted the whole age of the dinosaurs. Some ate fruit, others fish. Some were filter-feeders and some terrestrial stalkers. They ranged in size from a sparrow to a Cessna 172 airplane. So far, paleontologists have discovered 150 species, but they believe species diversity could have been in the thousands. Their skeletons are fragile because their bones are thin and hollow so they can achieve flight, and this makes for poor skeleton preservation.

What blew my mind was Quetzalcoatlus northropi, believed to have been the largest animal capable of powered flight ever. They are named after the Aztec serpent-god Quetzalcoatlus and were found in what is now Texas.

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I named this Quetzalcoatlus “Magritte” because his crest looks like a little bowler hat. Don’t tell the scientists I said that, though. Photo by J. Johnson.

These flying monsters lived in the Cretaceous period some 68 to 66 million years ago and lived the same time as our familiar friend Tyrannosaurus rex, although they would have towered over that fearsome predator. They weighed about 550 pounds and had anywhere from a 52- to 67-foot wingspan (I keep finding conflicting research). They were about sixteen feet tall, the height of a giraffe.

With their Cessna-sized wingspan. they are thought to have been comfortable flying at eighty miles per hour about two-and-a-half miles in the sky. They could stay aloft for one week or more and fly a staggering eight thousand miles without stopping. Scientists believe that this animal was as terrifying on the ground as the sky, quite capable of running after prey despite what I think is an awkward appearance while landed.

Instead of being haunted by dreams of Allosaurus and T. Rex, I instead had bizarre dreams about these huge pterosaurs coming to life in the museum which I understand is a curse that kicks of the adventures in Night at the Museum. Humans would never have stood a chance in the Cretaceous, and despite what Jurassic Park would have us believe, I somehow would not be as frightened of a Tyrannosaur as I would a Quetzalcoatlus.

 

 

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