A Dragon Tale

Pterosaur with 1-meter-long skull was Australia's largest known flying reptile.

Silhouettes on a white background: black male figure at left, black huge pterosaur flying to R, then dark grey medium pterosaur flying, then light gray small pterosaur flying

Wingspans of Australian pterosaurs: A. Thapunngaka shawi gen. et sp. nov.; B. Mythunga camara; C. Ferrodraco lentoni.

Silhouette modified from Claessens et al. (2009)

The discovery of a fossil jawbone in northwestern Queensland, Australia, has led researchers to describe it as a distinct species of pterosaur—the continent’s largest yet known. During the Lower Cretaceous, approximately 105 million years ago, this flying reptile, with a prominent crest on its jaw and an estimated seven-meter wingspan, would have soared over the shallow Eromanga Sea, which then covered parts of the eastern half of the supercontinent Gondwana.   

It was in that ancient marine environment that the fossilized remains of one of these large pterosaurs became preserved until June 2011, when a local fossil hunter, Len Shaw, uncovered part of its jaw. Shaw found the fossil in an old quarry near Richmond, Australia, on the traditional lands of the Wanamara Nation.  Paleontologist Timothy M. Richards, a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland, led the research team that analyzed the fossil jawbone and named the new pterosaur Thapunngaka shawi. In a nod to its origins, the genus, Thapunngaka, is based on words of the now-extinct language of the Wanamara Nation that mean “spear” and “mouth,” while the species refers to Shaw, the fossil’s discoverer.   

This Shaw’s spear-mouth pterosaur is “the closest thing we have to a real-life dragon,” according to Richards, who adds that it “was essentially just a skull with a long neck, bolted on a pair of long wings.” Based on the incomplete jawbone, he and his colleagues estimated that the pterosaur’s head alone would have measured about one meter and held about forty teeth. Notable is its deep “blade-like” crest along the front portion of its lower jaw, which it presumably had on the upper jaw as well. Researchers placed Thapunngaka in the family of pterosaurs known as Anhangueridae, which also commonly featured crests like this—though not as large—on their jaws. The function of such crests remains a matter of scientific debate.  

Although pterosaur fossils—with their hollow, delicate  bones adapted  to flight—are rare, Thapunngaka is one of four species of pterosaur found in Australia. Given the species’ close apparent relationships, the researchers suggest that this region might have given rise to a diversity of pterosaurs during the Lower Cretaceous, which means additional species may yet be discovered in Australia. (Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology)      

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