Dr Erich Fitzgerald is our Senior Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology.
Next time you visit the Dinosaur Walk exhibition at Melbourne Museum, look up, and prepare to be gob-smacked. Behold, Quetzalcoatlus, largest of those magnificent Mesozoic aeronauts; the pterosaurs! With a 10-metre wingspan, Quetzalcoatlus was perhaps the largest flying animal ever…or perhaps not. But before delving into that palaeontological puzzle, another question will no doubt be on your lips: how do you pronounce “Quetzalcoatlus” and what does it mean anyway?! The answer lies in Mexico, about 1,000 years ago, at the dawn of the civilization that would eventually become the Aztec Empire.
The Nahua people, who gave rise to Aztec culture, believed in a feathered serpent god of the sky called Quetzalcoatl (pronounced ‘ket-sal-ko-ah-tell’). Aztecs inherited the worship of Quetzalcoatl as one of their chief deities: a dragon-like god that linked the earth with the heavens and created humans.
The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (16th century).
Source: via Wikimedia Commons
The feathered serpent god returned in 1971 with the discovery in Texas of the fossilized wing bones of a truly colossal pterosaur of late Cretaceous age (about 65 to 70 million years ago). In light of their location near Mexico and their suggestion of a reptile that dominated the skies, these extraordinary fossils were named Quetzalcoatlus (pronounced ‘ket-sal-ko-atlas’) after the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl.
Life restoration of a group of giant azhdarchids, Quetzalcoatlus northropi, foraging on a Cretaceous fern prairie. A juvenile titanosaur has been caught by one pterosaur, while the others stalk through the scrub in search of small vertebrates and other food.
Image: Mark Witton and Darren Naish
Source: CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
As impossible as it may seem, Quetzalcoatlus and its kin (collectively dubbed azhdarchids) were capable of getting airborne, then sustaining flight through long-distance gliding on thermal air columns. Yet recent research on the skeleton of azhdarchid pterosaurs has suggested that they actually spent a substantial amount of time on the ground, stalking prey while walking stilt-like on all fours. For now, the feathered serpent god of the Aztecs may have been brought down to earth, but in a twist of the serpent’s tale, its legacy continues thanks to fossils from an even more ancient world, long ago.
Aztecs opens at Melbourne Museum on 9 April 2014
Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History