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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 collection 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 the real bones are in these drawers here in this cabinet. 

E: Wow.

M: 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 from 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 very 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 here - 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: Yeah. 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 more 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 have a lot more of the wing and we've got a lot more of the body, parts of the skull, neck vertebrae, even tiny 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" scale it up and get an idea of what some of the similar proportions would've 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 casts 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.

And so, this is an in-progress look at the combination of work between scientists and artists to reconstruct these extinct animals from somewhat-incomplete material.

E: That's so cool, though. Even if you find fragmentary bone that eroding out of some formation and you pick it up, and you're like, "Well, I don't have the whole thing," you can look at other fossils, you can look back at the literature, you can look at other reconstructions, you can bring in artists - and they can help literally flesh out what the rest of this skull would've looked like.

M: That's exactly right, yeah. And it's the beauty of the of a Museum collection like ours. Any of these big Natural History Museums have usually hundreds of thousands - sometimes millions - of fossils that we can then compare and fill in those missing gaps using these fragmentary bones. So even when we're in the field, we pick things up even though they're fragments, because they help fill in the missing pieces.

E: Well, that's awesome that you build sort of a structure, have a foundation for this animal, and then just let your imagination dream up what this crest would've looked like, or what color it was, or if it had some fleshy protuberance that was used in wacky mating displays or something.

M: And one of the neat things about science is that we're making all these predictions about what these missing pieces look like, and the more specimens we find, we fill in those gaps. And it comes to things like 20 years ago we would've said, "You know, you'd never know what color these animals were, and now there's new technologies and techniques for studying these fossils where we're actually able to reconstruct what color their skin and feathers were sometimes.

E: What?? That's so cool!

M: Yeah, so who knows what we'll find in another 20 years looking at these fossils. A new technique will maybe take a lot of the guesswork out of what we have to do now.

E: What I love so much about that is that you've got an organism like this, which is known from just a couple of bones, and even though you can compare them to more complete specimens of similar species, you really would need someone like an artist or sculptor to come in and look at this and use this as the skeleton to build a framework of what this might have looked like.

M: That's exactly right, yeah. When we're reconstructing these animals, we work with scientists, we work with artists, work with engineers, drawing, and just many different minds and the ways of thinking about fossils is possible.

We actually have an Artist-in-Residence here; some of her work is looking at fossils almost as portrait subjects.

E: Wow.

M: And so, not just documenting them for technical purposes but she's really trying to show these things off and giving them new life.

E: Yeah. I mean it takes quite the imagination to take something like this [gestures to fragments] and come up with something like this [gestures to illustration].

M: It really puzzled people for a long time. It look a lot of different groups of people coming together to be able to tell the story of what these animals were, how they lived, how an animal like this could fly, what it ate - just the endless number of questions we ask in paleontology.

E: I know if I had come across this, I wouldn't look at it and be like, "Giant flying reptile! [M chuckles] That's it. That's totally what this is."

M: [laughing] Yeah.

E: "I got it. Science over, guys! Everybody can go home now."

I can't believe I got to touch this thing. I'm, like, a little sweaty, honestly. Matt, thank you so much, it was so awesome to finally see this - [J enters wearing hardhat]

J: [hard exhale] There you guys are.

E: Joe, where have you been?

J: You - you don't even want to know. Okay. What did I miss? Just catch me up, or...

E: We'll fill you in... we'll fill you in later.

[wipe transition]

E: So, here's the thing: Even though these animal had wings, there was a lot of debate within the scientific community about whether or not they'd actually be able to fly. But recently, researchers mashing paleontology with aerospace engineering and computer modeling have come together to answer that question.

So if you want to know more about that and the physics behind how these animals took to the skies, make sure you check out the video on Joe's channel.

And now, enjoy the trailer for my new three-part documentary series about paleontology and deep time - it's Prehistoric Road Trip - which you can catch on Wednesday starting June 17th on your local PBS station, on the PBS app, or stream from anywhere at

I have worked on this project for three years; it has been a personal and scientific journey of mine. I cannot wait for you to see it, I am so excited about it, and thank you for everything you've done for me over the years. Man, I hope you love this show as I do. All right. Thanks.

[fade to black, fade into trailer, music]

E: What is this?

Person: Yours are the first human eyes to see that evidence of past life?

[drawer sliding out]

E: Wow!

[extreme wide shot, overlay text: "Introducing YouTube Sensation, Emily Graslie"]

[muted, short clips of E from show]

[E in V.O.]
E: I have spent years celebrating the wonders of the natural world on my YouTube series, The Brain Scoop. [car truck shuts] Now, I'm heading back to the northern Great Plains where I grew up to learn more about an area I thought I understood.

[In-scene dialogue]
E: How do you know it's a dinosaur bone?

Person: [mouth sounds] Tastes like one. [E laughs]

[wide shot, car driving, overlay text: "Two Thousand Miles"]

Person: How do we know where we're going unless we know how we got here.

[aerial shot, overlay text: "Two Billion Years"]

E: You know, just your average day digging through some dirt... [smells sample] I don't know why I smelled it.

[extreme wide shot, overlay text: "One Epoch Journey"]

E: Oh, whoa!
Does that ever get old?
This is how science happens!
It's cool!
We could be standing on top of a t-rex right now and we'd have no idea.

Person: No, we wouldn't.

E: [chuckles]

[extreme wide shot; overlay text: "P"rehistoric Road Trip"]

[slide, "Coming June 2020, music ends, fade to black]

[Brain Scoop outro, ends]

E: It still has brains on it.