Prehistoric dragons flew over Australia

Australia’s largest flying pterosaur, which was as fearsome as a dragon and swooped like a magpie, has been named.

“The new pterosaur, which we named Thapunngaka shawi, would have been a fearsome beast, with a spear-like mouth and a wingspan around seven metres,” says Tim Richards of the University of Queensland (UQ), who led the study.

The UQ researchers analysed a fossilised pterosaur jaw, originally discovered in Wanamara country in northwest Queensland in 2011.

“It’s the closest thing we have to a real-life dragon,” says Richards.

“It was essentially just a skull with a long neck, bolted on a pair of long wings.

“This thing would have been quite savage. It would have cast a great shadow over some quivering little dinosaur that wouldn’t have heard it until it was too late.”

The skull alone would have been a little over a metre long and was filled with 40 teeth that were perfectly adapted to the pterosaur dropping out of the air to skewer multiple fish from the long-gone Eromanga Sea that once covered much of northern Queensland.

“It’s tempting to think it may have swooped like a magpie during mating season, making your local magpie swoop look pretty trivial – no amount of zip ties would have saved you,” says Richards.

See more: Anatomical secrets of ‘ridiculously long’ pterosaur necks

“Though, to be clear, it was nothing like a bird, or even a bat. Pterosaurs were a successful and diverse group of reptiles – the very first backboned animals to take a stab at powered flight.”

Only the third Aussie pterosaur identified, it was part of a group called anhanguerians, which inhabited every continent on Earth during the latter part of the age of dinosaurs. The pterosaur had thin-walled and hollow bones, which made it light enough to fly, but also meant fossils are rare.

“It’s quite amazing fossils of these animals exist at all,” says Richards.

“By world standards, the Australian pterosaur record is poor, but the discovery of Thapunngaka contributes greatly to our understanding of Australian pterosaur diversity.”

The thing that set Thapunngaka apart from other anhanguerians was a massive bony crest on its lower jaw, which was probably part of a pair on the upper and lower jaw bones.

“These crests probably played a role in the flight dynamics of these creatures, and hopefully future research will deliver more definitive answers,” says Steve Salisbury, who supervised Richards.

The fossil was named to honour the First Nations peoples who lived in Wanamara country and the person who discovered the fossil.

“The genus name, Thapunngaka, incorporates thapun [ta-boon] and ngaka [nga-ga], the Wanamara words for ‘spear’ and ‘mouth’, respectively,” says Salisbury.

“The species name, shawi, honours the fossil’s discoverer, Len Shaw, so the name means ‘Shaw’s spear mouth’.”

The research was published in the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology.

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