• Sierra del Carmen

    Big Bend

    National Park Texas

Quetzalcoatlus northropi

The World's Largest Flier

An impressive exhibit in the Panther Junction Visitor Center at Big Bend National Park displays a life-size replica of the wing bones of an enormous pterosaur. The 18-foot long specimen was discovered here in Big Bend National Park and represents the second largest known flying creature ever to have existed. Its name is Quetzalcoatlus northropi.
Size comparison between pterosaur and modern car

Discovery of the Fossil

In 1971, Douglas A. Lawson, a student at the University of Texas in Austin, was performing geological field work in the park for his master’s thesis when he discovered a fossil bone eroding out of an arroyo bank. His professor, Dr. Wann Langston Jr., determined that this long, hollow, very thin-walled bone could only be from a pterosaur wing. Subsequent excavations recovered more wing bones, but unfortunately the wing must have detached from the body before being buried and fossilized, because no body bones could be found. Lawson named his discovery Quetzalcoatlus after the Mexican deity Quetzalcoatl, who was worshipped by the Aztecs in the form of a feathered snake.

Dr. Langston continued to search for and study Big Bend fossils and eventually found other specimens of Quetzalcoatlus in another part of the park. Although these specimens were smaller than the original, they were more complete and had a very impressive wingspan of at least 18 feet. Comparison of these complete specimens with the huge bones of the original Quetzalcoatlus made it possible to calculate the body size of Lawson’s specimen. This enormous pterosaur had an estimated wingspan of 36–39 feet, making it the largest known flying creature of all time. It is not yet clear whether the smaller specimens were young individuals of the large species, or whether they represent a distinct, smaller species of Quetzalcoatlus.

Did You Know?

Cooper's Store, 1940s

Local legend Hallie Stillwell once said,“Cooper’s Store was the clearing house for information; travelers always stopped to find out what had happened ahead of them.” The old store building retains this role today as the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center at the north entrance to Big Bend National Park. More...