In 1971 a graduate student doing fieldwork in Texas discovered the bones of a pterosaur, a winged reptile that once ruled Earth's skies. At the time it was the largest flying creature ever found, with a wingspan of at least 36 feet. Huge as that seems, new finds suggest some pterosaurs grew larger.
While working in Mexico, paleontologist Eberhard Frey of the Natural History Museum in Karlsruhe, Germany, discovered the footprints of a pterosaur with a wingspan of at least 59 feet—larger than that of a modern fighter jet. Frey's colleague David Martill, of the University of Portsmouth in England, unveiled the find September 8 at the British Association for the Advancement of Science's Festival of Science in Dublin: "These are the biggest flying organisms to have ever lived on Earth."
The footprints—combined with new fossil finds and a detailed study of older samples—present a new picture of the winged giants. "Pterosaurs were beautifully engineered," Martill told the BBC. "Their skeletons were exceedingly light—their bones were very thin and hollow, and those hollows were filled with an air-sac system. They'd also gotten rid of their reptilian scales, and their wing membrane was very, very thin."
Pterosaur wings were good for gliding but were also maneuverable because of a special shoulder joint. The reptiles were as large as a man and had skinny, 10-foot-wide necks and heads longer than a three-seat sofa. The creature possibly jumped to get airborne, Martill said, noting that its pelvis was constructed much like a frog's.
It is not clear if these giant finds represent a new species in the pterosaur family, which includes pterodactyls and crested pteradons. There is also a debate about where pterosaurs fit in the evolutionary tree. It is agreed, however, that when they became extinct along with dinosaurs 65 million years ago, they left no descendants.