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.
MIKE HABIB: 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.
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: Habib teamed up with a British paleontologist, Mark Witton. They plugged factors like wing span, 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.
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: 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.
DAVID UNWIN: 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.
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: For NPR News, I'm Reid Fraizer.
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