Quetzalcoatlus wing cast reconstruction

Texas Pterosaur one of the most famous finds in paleontology

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by Jenny Cobb, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

The desert is the largest ecosystem in Big Bend National Park, providing optimal conditions for fossil excavation.

Doug Lawson was a graduate student at The University of Texas in 1971 conducting geological field work in Big Bend when he made an amazing discovery. He unearthed the wing fossil fragments of a Quetzalcoatlus northropi, the Texas Pterosaur, the largest flying animal ever discovered at the time. Lawson’s find made the front page of the New York Times and remains a landmark scientific discovery 45 years later.

Flying reptiles like pterosaurs ranged from pigeon-sized, with a wingspan of 18 inches, to the airplane-sized Quetzalcoatlus, with a wingspan of 36–39 feet making it the largest-known flyer of all time. The earliest known pterosaurs lived nearly 220 million years ago in the Triassic period and the last ones, including the Quetzalcoatlus, died approximately 65 million years ago. Back in the lab, the wing was reconstructed using fiberglass casts of fossilized remains found in Big Bend, painted to match the original specimens. The black fiberglass replica bone pieces seen in the wing are based proportionally on smaller pterosaur fossils that have been found.

Complex and diverse, Big Bend National Park’s geological history contains a fossil record from the past 65 million years. In addition to the Quetzalcoatlus, the remains of over 90 dinosaur species, nearly 100 plant species, and more than two dozen fish, frogs, salamanders, turtles, crocodiles, lizards, and early mammals have been found within the park’s boundaries.

The Quetzalcoatlus wing and approximately 30 additional artifacts are part of the exhibition, Journey Into Big Bend, on view until September 18th on the Museum’s third floor.

See this and other artifacts on the Interactive Texas Map

Quetzalcoatlus wing cast reconstruction Artifact from Big Bend, Texas
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