STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It looked like something between a reptile, a giraffe, and a bat. And a pair of scientists are now saying this ancient creature is the world's long-distance flight champion. The honor might come a little bit late for the Pterosaur, which is extinct, but it's not too late to hear a profile of the creature that was not a dinosaur, but a flying reptile. Reid Frazier reports.
REID FRAZIER: Above the dinosaur exhibit at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History, a giant pterosaur hangs from the ceiling. This is a Quetzalcoatlus, thought to be the largest flying animal that ever lived. It has a massive skull, with a beak-like mouth, and its wing span takes up almost the entire ceiling.
Mr. MIKE HABIB (Biomechanics specialist, Chatham University): It would have been a very bizarre animal to see fly above you.
FRAZIER: Mike Habib is a specialist in biomechanics from nearby Chatham University.
Mr. HABIB: This kind of strange amalgamation of a classic modern reptile, bird, giraffe, and bat, basically, kind of all squeezed into one. Very, very unique animal.
FRAZIER: Its wingspan and size have spawned comparisons to dragons. But, some scientists wonder whether the creature was too big to fly. A pair of papers recently asserted that the biggest pterosaurs may have been too heavy to get off the ground. That seemed implausible to Habib. After all, the biggest birds often have the longest flight range. And Quetzalcoatlus, with its 35-foot wing span, certainly fits the bill for ginormous(ph).
Habib teamed up with a British paleontologist, Mark Witton. They plugged factors like wingspan, weight, and aerodynamics into a computer model. The results, which they presented at a conference last month, were staggering. They revealed an animal that could fly up to 80 miles an hour, for seven to 10 days, at altitudes of 15,000 feet. The maximum range, Habib says, was probably between eight and 12,000 miles.
Mr. HABIB: I think we can conclude, quite confidently, that they had the ability - whether they did or not - that they had the ability to go very far. That doesn't mean, necessarily, that they did, it doesn't necessarily mean there's a specific number. Just that it would be long enough to say, cross an ocean.
FRAZIER: Habib and Witton further spelled out the reptile's flight mechanics in a recent issue of the journal PLoS ONE. They say the animal was literally built to fly. It had hollow bones, strong wing muscles, and front limbs that could launch it into the air.
David Unwin, a paleobiologist at the University of Leicester in England, agrees with Habib that Quetzalcoatlus could fly. But he's not convinced about the distance.
Mr. DAVID UNWIN (Paleobiologist, University of Leicester): Where we get into more difficulty, I think, is in some of the claims about flight performance.
FRAZIER: Unwin says these types of projections are premature for a fossil as mysterious as this one. Only one adult skeleton of Quetzalcoatlus has ever been discovered. And that consists of fragments of just one wing. That makes estimating a basic feature like body mass a near crapshoot. Without a deeper fossil record, Unwin says, there are only a few conclusions one can make about these animals.
Mr. UNWIN: Yes we had giant pterosaurs, and yes they could fly, and yes they lived at end of cretaceous, and we can't say an awful lot more.
FRAZIER: Unwin and Habib think there may be more to say in the years to come. That's because dig sites in Germany, Brazil, and China have turned out to be hotbeds for pterosaur fossils. Habib is hoping that in one of these beds lay clues to how fast and how far these ancient animals really did fly.
For NPR News, I'm Reid Fraizer.