STL Science Center

STL Science Center

04 April 2012

The Diet of A Giant


Douglas Lawson found the first Quetzalcoatlus remains (that we know of; it is rather convenient that Mesoamerican mythology has a "feathered serpent god") and three years later rejected the idea of piscivorous diet. He, instead, opted for a scavenger's diet spotting carcasses from kills and natural death from the sky and gliding down to commandeer the animal from others in order to take a fairly easy meal. This, in turn, was rejected by Lehmann and Langston in 1996 who suggested that with a toothless beak and a certain configuration of the cervical vertebrae Quetzalcoatlus made for a competent skimmer. They proposed that the giant pterosaur flew over bodies of water at wave top heights picking out fish and anything else that wandered too close to the surface. A study in 2007 showed that drag and energy consumption in fighting drag would have been too large for the animal to sustain flight and get a worthwhile meal in this fashion however, and the idea was, again, rejected.

I kid you not, that heron really ate a rabbit!
In 2008 Witton and Naish put forth the idea that has been presented here using one of Witton's own illustrations. The idea was that Quetzalcoatlus, gliding along, found small prey items- lizards, baby Alamosaurus, small mammals, amphibians- and then landed and scooped them. They presented information that showed that Quetzalcoatlus was comfortable on the ground as well as in the air and that the remains of the animal were almost always found inland where there was no water of sufficient size for this large animal to skim the surface of. All of these studies in addition to what very little is known of the actual flight properties of this pterosaur point toward Witton and Naish's latest study as the most probable diet for Quetzalcoatlus. Additionally, taking examples from the modern world as we do, it is not so difficult a theory to accept as there are certainly birds that, while they do spend a good amount of time being graceful aerial acrobats, do spend the majority of their time on the ground stalking small food items. Just look at these guys eating over here.

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