Remains of ‘real-life dragon’ with spear-like mouth and 7m wingspan discovered

The remains of a real-life dragon with a "spear-like mouth" and a seven metre wingspan have been uncovered in Australia's outback.

Researchers said the "savage" creature is the country's largest flying reptile.

The pterosaur would have soared above an ancient inland sea picking off small dinosaurs and fish from above.

Its skull alone would have been just over one metre long, containing around 40 teeth – allowing it to grasp the many fishes known to inhabit Queensland’s no-longer-existent Eromanga Sea.

University of Queensland PhD candidate Tim Richards led a research team that analysed a fossil of the creature’s jaw.

It was discovered on Wanamara Country, near Richmond in North West Queensland.

“It’s the closest thing we have to a real life dragon,” Mr Richards, from the Dinosaur Lab in UQ’s School of Biological Sciences, said.

“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.

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

“This thing would have been quite savage.

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

He added: “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.

“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 back-boned animals to take a stab at powered flight.”

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The new species belonged to a group of pterosaurs known as anhanguerians, which inhabited every continent during the latter part of the Age of Dinosaurs.

Being perfectly adapted to powered flight, pterosaurs had thin-walled and relatively hollow bones.

Given these adaptations their fossilised remains are rare and often poorly preserved.

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

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

It is only the third species of anhanguerian pterosaur known from Australia, with all three species hailing from western Queensland.

Dr Steve Salisbury, co-author on the paper and Mr Richard’s PhD supervisor, was particularly impressed by the creature's huge bony crest on its lower jaw. It presumably had another one on its upper jaw.

“These crests probably played a role in the flight dynamics of these creatures, and hopefully future research will deliver more definitive answers,” Dr Salisbury said.

The fossil was found in a quarry just northwest of Richmond in June 2011 by Len Shaw, a local fossicker who has been "scratching around" in the area for decades.

The new species' name combines words from the now-extinct language of the Wanamara Nation which lived in the area and its discoverer's name Len Shaw.

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

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

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