Australia’s largest ‘dragon’ discovered: revelation in fossil

Comparing it to a dragon, it was the continent's largest flying reptile. Pterosaur remains found in the outback a decade ago have finally been identified as a new species of animal.

With an estimated wingspan of seven meters, 40 razor-sharp teeth, a circular ridge under the jaw and no living relatives, a dragon of sorts has been discovered in Australia. It's a new species of pterosaur, whose fossilized remains were found in inland Queensland a decade ago and is believed to be the continent's most mythical dragon-like animal. The creature, believed to have lived 105 million years ago, is the largest known flying reptile in the country and was first described in a paper published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Australia's largest dragon

Leading the research team from the Dinosaur Lab in UQ's School of Biological Sciences was Tim Richards, a doctoral student at the University of Queensland. The scholar said that by comparing partial remains of the jawbone with other pterosaur fossils, the researchers were able to estimate the specimen's proportions and determine that it was an entirely new species that likely had a metre-long skull with a pointed snout, proportionally long wings, short hind legs and no tail, and was covered in light hair.

"It wasn't built to eat broccoli," Richards said, adding that "it's only a few feet in wingspan shorter than a hang glider." Its morphology suggests it had a carnivorous diet, and its teeth, the researcher explained, were probably designed to hold back slippery fish. The animal belonged to a group of pterosaurs known as anhaguerians, which thrived for 200 million years, lived on all continents and became highly specialized in their environment. The new animal was given the scientific name Thapunngaka shawi - a combination of the Wanamara nation's words for "spear" and "mouth," and the surname of the person who had discovered the fossil.

The remains were found in June 2011 in Wanamara country, near Richmond in northwest Queensland, by Len Shaw, a council employee who was searching for fossils during his lunch break using a front-end loader that gently poured water over the rock face to identify bones in the rock. When Shaw noticed the jaw orbits, he immediately contacted a local museum, Kronosaurus Korner. Richards said pterosaur fossils are extremely rare worldwide because their bones were only millimeters thick, hollow and extremely fragile.

Steve Salisbury, co-author of the paper and Richards' doctoral supervisor, said the discovery was particularly significant because pterosaurs became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period and have no living relatives. "It's exciting to find new pterosaur remains because we only know them from fossils," Salisbury said. Pterosaurs are different from dinosaurs, and the new species in particular, according to the research authors, is as close as we can get to mythological dragons.

Closer to us, in Spain, paleontologists at the Universidad del Pais Vasco, have instead discovered two new species of pseudo-horses, small and short-legged, which have entered the world fossil record.

Stefania Bernardini