Imagine a giraffe, but with a 40-foot wingspan and a massive beak.
That was the Quetzalcoatlus, a type of pterosaur that dominated the skies millions of years ago. Neither a bird nor a dinosaur, the pterosaur was around for millions of years alongside the likes of the Tyrannosaurus rex and is one of the most recognizable creatures from prehistoric times.
However, not much is known about the giant Quetzalcoatlus. It is regarded as the biggest flying creature to ever exist, but there is skepticism as to whether it did fly, and if it did, how it got in the air.
Now, a group of researchers say they have figured out the Quetzalcoatlus did in fact fly and have learned how it did so by discovering two new types of pterosaurs. Their findings were published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology on Wednesday.
Matthew Brown, director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Vertebrate Paleontology Collections and co-author of the study, told USA TODAY the findings are 50 years worth of research put together. He added it took so long to understand how the species functions because their bones are as thick as a "potato chip," so it required more time to carefully inspect them.
There are few fossils of the Quetzalcoatlus, but Brown said there were hundreds of bones for a smaller type of pterosaur, which instead had a wingspan of 18 to 20 feet. From there, the team brought in an aerospace engineer and biomechanic.
"You kind of have to shift your mindset to think about these as living, breathing animals and not just dead skeletons sitting in a drawer," Brown said. "Part of that is looking at modern animals that are alive today that have similar body types."
Together, the team determined that these animals leaped over 8 feet into the air in order to take flight.
"(The team) applied a lot of the aerospace knowledge to understanding how something like airfoil works and how much speed you need to generate lift," Brown said. "There are a couple of models that have been proposed, but the one that that is more attractive is that they're jumping up in the air and then flapping their wings."
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Kevin Padian, co-author of the study and an emeritus professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, added the creatures had large breastbones, so they were "terrific flyers." With its long jaws, the Quetzalcoatlus often ate crabs, worms and clams from rivers and lakes.
Brown said this analysis will hopefully lead to being able to connect all the different types of pterosaurs; there have been an estimated 100 types discovered. The biggest goal is to be able to find a complete skeleton of a Quetzalcoatlus, but for now, Brown is grateful for the team's work.
"It's exciting working with these materials," he said. "This was an early Christmas for us."
Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: A giant, giraffe-sized pterosaur leaped in the air to fly, study says