A giant flying reptile the size of a plane may have been the largest and most feared predator in ancient Transylvania. After examining the enormous neck vertebrae of a creature called Hatzegopteryx– a pterosaur with a 32–foot wingspan and giant beak– researchers now believe it was a fierce carnivore that preyed on dinosaurs and other animals in Romania during the Cretaceous period.
“We've suspected that some giant pterosaurs were terrestrial foragers for a while now, but the idea that one could be a stocky, powerful apex predator is not something anyone would have predicted even a few years ago,” study author Dr. Mark Witton of the University of Portsmouth told Fox News. “Indeed, it wasn't that long ago that the idea of a pterosaur occupying a dominant ecological role would have been laughable!”
The toothless Haptzegopteryx belonged to a flying reptile group known as Azhdarchidae. Usually reptiles in this group have very long necks, some of which can measure over eight feet in length. The neck of Hatzegopteryx, however, is shorter and much stronger, with considerable muscle mass. This was one of the clues that helped Witton and co-author Dr. Darren Naish get a clearer understanding of the mysterious creature’s behavior.
“We compared the structural properties of its bones to those of other giant pterosaurs using the same principles that engineers use to design buildings and vehicles,” Witton explained. “Hatzegopteryx was consistently stronger in all our tests.”
The team also looked at the degree of scarring of muscle attachment on its bones and found they were very well developed— much bigger than previously realized— and deduced that this strong skeleton was under the control of extensive muscle power. It had reinforced limb bones and a foot and a half-wide skull. Combining these stats with what is known of Hatzegopteryx’s close relatives, it soon became clear the pterosaur was unlike any other in its group and was a serious force to be reckoned with.
It’s theorized that one reason Hatzegopteryx was able to become the dominant predator in ancient Romania is due to the dynamic of the area itself. At the time, it had a strange island ecosystem where few predators could compare in size to the winged reptile.
“The rocks yielding Hatzegopteryx fossils have been studied for hundreds of years and to date no evidence of a large predator (other than Hatzegopteryx) has been found,” Witton said. “There are no giant predatory dinosaurs, no enormous crocodylians… not even a single tooth from one of these guys.”
According to Witton, they have lots of other fossils from these sites— including small predators— so it stands to reason that, after generations of fieldwork, someone would have found some evidence of these animals if they were there. This led the team to conclude that, without any other large predators to compete with, Hatzegopteryx was Romania’s head honcho.
One thing is for sure: Cretaceous–age Transylvania was a scary place to be if you were a dinosaur or some other prehistoric critter who found itself in Hatzegopteryx’s crosshairs. With its huge beak, solid build and massive wingspan, this reptile was fast and lethal.
“These animals were huge, and their cruising speeds were impressive (40-60 mph depending on the model),” Witton said. “If in a rush, and they weren't concerned about energy consumption, they might have been pushing over 100 mph. Using a mix of powered and soaring flight, transcontinental travel would have been very easy for these giants.”