The first Quetzalcoatlus fossils were discovered in Texas, from the Maastrichtian Javelina Formation at Big Bend National Park (dated to around 68 million years ago) in 1971. The specimen consisted of a partial wing (in pterosaurs composed of the forearms and elongated fourth finger), from an individual later estimated at over 10 m (33 ft.) in wingspan.
Quetzalcoatlus northropi takes deep inspiration in its naming. The genus name refers to the Aztec feathered serpent god, Quetzalcoatl. The specific name honors John Knudsen Northrop, the founder of Northrop, who drove the development of large tailless flying wing aircraft designs resembling Quetzalcoatlus.