Scientists reveal how jet-sized flying dinosaurs got airborne

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Jan 14, 2013, 2:52 PM EST

It was the biggest living thing ever to take to the skies, a dinosaur the size of an F-16 fighter with a 34-foot wingspan and a weight of 155 pounds. Despite its size, it managed to get off the ground without the aid of mountains or cliffs, but how? Scientists now think they know, and the answer, like the dino, is a bit jet-like.

Quetzalcoatlus was the largest variety of pterosaur, a giant flying creature that lived 67 million years ago in what is now Texas. Quetzalcoatlus had a huge wingspan, which made it ideal for flying, but its size made it not so ideal when it came to getting into the air. We also know that it lived primarily on land that was covered by thick forests in its day, which meant no cliffs to take off from. So, without the aid of a little extra altitude, how on earth did this huge creature take flight?

The answer comes in a new study presented earlier this week to at the Geological Society of America's annual meeting. According to co-author Sankar Chatterjee of Texas Tech University, Quetzalcoatlus took off by getting a running start on all fours, then raising its wings up, flapping and leaping into the air.

But the jet-like part comes in where the dinosaur took off. To counteract its size, Quetzalcoatlus used river valleys and lake edges, where the terrain sloped down, as runways to gain extra speed before liftoff.

"This would be very awkward-looking," Chatterjee said. "They'd have to run but also need a downslope, a technique used today by hang gliders. Once in the air, though, they were magnificent gliders."

Landing was also apparently rather awkward for Quetzalcoatlus, but if you were just barely light enough to take flight under your own power (as Chatterjee's research suggests), you'd probably be less worried about grace and more worried about not tumbling into a tree.

To see this huge flying creature in action, check out the simulation Chatterjee and his team put together, which demonstrates both the takeoff and the landing.

(Via Huffington Post)