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↓↓↓ Info on how/where/when to catch PREHISTORIC ROAD TRIP below! ↓↓↓

Quetzalcoatlus was the largest flying animal of all time. But this extraordinary animal is known from only a handful of bones; a complete skeleton has never been found. So how do scientists know what it looked like?

Check out Joe's video on how these giants took to the skies:

E01 -- JUNE 17, 2020: Welcome to Fossil Country
E02 -- JUNE 24, 2020: We Dig Dinosaurs
E03 -- JULY 1, 2020: Tiny Teeth, Fearsome Beasts
*Check your local PBS station for exact times!

On your TV, phone, or tablet through the PBS App:
Executive Producer, Creator, Host:
Emily Graslie

Producer, Editor:
Sheheryar Ahsan

David Schulte
Derek Borsheim

Production Assistant, Content Developer, Writer:
Raven Forrest

Production Support:
Vinícius Penteado

Special Thanks:
Joe Hanson
Sarah Wilson
Matt Brown
The Lauer Foundation
Both: Woah.

Emily: Quetzalcoatlus.

Joe: The largest flying thing of all time?

E: The size of a giraffe.

J: That thing took to the skies?  Apparently.

E: I've got questions.

J: So do I.

E: Let's go.

So, I've got fossils on my mind because Prehistoric Road Trip, the series I've been working on for three years, is finally out next week on PBS.  There's more info on that show including how and when you can tune in in the links in the video description so please check out that information below.  And we even threw the trailer for the show at the end of this episode so keep watching in order to get that sneak peek treat.

But there's one prehistoric creature we don't really talk about in the show and that's this behemoth.  After Quetzalcoatlus went extinct 66 million years ago, there ws nothing with a wingspan that vast in the skies until the Wright brothers took their historic flight in 1903.  The Field Museum is home to life size reconstructions which let you experience what it must have felt like to stand next to one yourself.  But as with many prehistoric creatures, their anatomy seems unfamiliar and even improbable.  Fossils from this amazing creature were first unearthed by a graduate student in Joe's home state of Texas in the 1970's.  I wanna know how much of the reconstructions of these animals are based on the original fossils and other scientific information, and how much is artistic license.

E: So, we came here to the vertebrate paleontology department at the University of Texas-Austin-

J: To get some answers.

E: Yeah.

J: Ooh, cool.  Big husky, tusky boy.

E: Yeah, you're just gonna have to go over to Joe's channel to see what adventure he got up to.  Meanwhile, I'm off to see Matthew Brown, who is the Director of Vertebrate Paleontology at UT-Austin and just the person we need.

Matthew: So the skeleton that you saw hanging from the ceiling in the museum is a cast, but hte real bones are in these drawers here in this cabinet.  So these are the real fossils of Quetzalcoatlus.  Out of all the bones in the skeleton, we have part of one wing of this animal.  So this giant flying reptile is represented by bones in about three drawers here in this cabinet.

E: You only have the bones from one of the arms?  Of the entire thing?

M: That's right.

E: What was the reaction form the scientific community when this graduate student and his collaborators were like, "we think we've found the largest flying reptile of all time"?

M: They were surprised when Doug Lawson, who was the grad student who found it-they were doing a press release-he showed up, he thought he was gonna be speaking in front of a small group of Austin reporters, and there was press from all over the world just packing the room.  It was a, really kind of blew the doors off of what they were expecting.

E: That's exciting.

M: Yeah, so the reception for this animal, it's one of the most famous fossils in the world.  You can find it on postage stamps, you can find it on coins, the Quetzalcoatlus is kind of everywhere, it's in video games, and movies.  Yeah, so, we're looking at the humerus hre, the upper arm bone, this is the ulna, and we have some more of the forearm bones in the drawer down below.  This is one of the bones from the wrist.  This is a carpel bone, so if you think about the bones in your wrist here, how small they are, and this, you can actually pick that up if you want to and feel how big it is, yeah go for it.

E: Woah. This is massive

M: It's huge.

E: This is a huge wrist bone, it's like the size of my face.  So how is it possible that with just a couple of limb bones from this animal, they're able to come up with an entire reconstruction of what the whole body would have looked like?

M: So, in order to make a reconstruction of an incomplete fossil, and most fossils that we find are pretty incomplete, we look at other animals that are very closely related that we might have more bones from, or bones that are missing in this skeleton here.  So also found at Big Bend National Park, where this specimen was collected, is another somewhat smaller Quetzalcoatlus that fills in most of the missing parts of this skeleton.  So if we open the next cabinet, we can see a much mor complete, but smaller animal.

E: Wow.

M: So this is the humerus, you can compare this same bone, this is the upper arm bone from the wing, it's about half the size of this large animal.  So we've got a lot more of the wing and we've got a lot more of the body, parts of the skull neck vertebrae, even little claws preserved from this smaller pterosaur.

E: So they're sort of able to take the remnants of this skeleton and like put 'em into Photoshop and like "boop" get an idea of what some of the similar proportions might have been?

M: A rough idea, yeah.

E: That's amazing.
To better understand how artists help paleontologists fill in the missing pieces of incomplete fossils, Matt wanted to show me a pterosaur skull reconstruction in the works.

M: So what we're looking at here is a reconstruction of the smaller species of Quetzalcoatlus, this is a skull that is a combination of plaster cast of the real bones-most of what you see here in plaster is a copy of the real bone material that we have from the skeleton-and the green is an in progress sculpture in clay that is making inferences based on what other more completed pterosaur skulls look like. (4:45)