A team of researchers led by Tim Richards from the University of Queensland identified the fossilised jaw of Thapunngaka sawi as belonging to a flying reptile with a wingspan of seven metres and sharp, sharp teeth.

A terrifying sight with an estimated wingspan of seven metres, Australia’s largest flying reptile has been identified by paleontologists. Dating back 100 million years, the ‘dragon’ called Thapunngaka shawi would fly above the ancient inland sea called Eromanga that used to cover a big portion of outback Queensland.

The skeletal remains of Thapunngaka shawi was found a decade ago, on Wanamara country near Richmond, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia.

PhD candidate Tim Richards, from the Dinosaur Lab in UQ’s School of Biological Sciences poses with the reconstructed skull of Thapunngaka sawi.
PhD candidate Tim Richards, from the Dinosaur Lab in UQ’s School of Biological Sciences poses with the reconstructed skull of Thapunngaka sawi. (Courtesy of the University of Queensland, Australia)

“It’s the closest thing we have to a real-life dragon,” University of Queensland PhD candidate Tim Richards, from the Dinosaur Lab in UQ’s School of Biological Sciences said in a news release by UQ.

Richards led a research team that analysed a fossil of the creature’s jaw and they concluded that the specimen is the largest pterosaur found in Australia.

Richards observed that "The new pterosaur 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.

“It would have cast a great shadow over some quivering little dinosaurs who wouldn’t have heard them coming until it was too late.” Richards went on to say.

Reconstruction of the skull of Thapunngaka shawi gen. et sp. nov.
Reconstruction of the skull of Thapunngaka shawi gen. et sp. nov. (Courtesy of the University of Queensland, Australia)

According to Australia’s ABC News, Richards and his team “found the large bony crest on Thapunngaka shawi’s lower jaw to be the third-largest in the world.”

Richards told UQ News that the skull alone would have been just over one metre long, containing around 40 teeth, perfectly suited to grasping the large predatory fishes known to inhabit Queensland’s no-longer-existent Eromanga Sea.

According  to Richards, even though pterosaurs could fly, they were nothing like birds, or even bats. "Pterosaurs were a successful and diverse group of reptiles – the very first back-boned animals to take a stab at powered flight.”

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

According to an article in CNet,  “pterosaurs populated the earth as recently as 66 million years ago, before the asteroid death blast ended the dinosaurs' reign, and as early as 228 million years ago. They're distinguished for being the first vertebrae creature -- that is, a creature with a spine -- to take flight. The most famous pterosaur is the pterodacylus, which is why pterosaurs are often incorrectly known as pterodactyls.”

Hypothetical outlines of Australian pterosaurs showing relative wingspan sizes. Human standing 1.8 m tall is used for scale. A, Thapunngaka shawi gen. et sp. nov., KKF494; B, Mythunga camara, QMF18896; C, Ferrodraco lentoni, AODF876.
Hypothetical outlines of Australian pterosaurs showing relative wingspan sizes. Human standing 1.8 m tall is used for scale. A, Thapunngaka shawi gen. et sp. nov., KKF494; B, Mythunga camara, QMF18896; C, Ferrodraco lentoni, AODF876. (Courtesy of the University of Queensland, Australia)

Pterosaurs were perfectly adapted to flight, with “thin-walled and relatively hollow” bones. This made it difficult for researchers to discover their remains because they didn’t survive to our times. “It’s quite amazing fossils of these animals exist at all,” Richards said.

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

Thapunngaka shawi is only the third species of anhanguerian pterosaur known from Australia, with all three species hailing from western Queensland, the UQ news release explains.

Dr Steve Salisbury, co-author on the paper and Richards’ PhD supervisor, said what was particularly interesting about this new species of anhanguerian was the great size of the bony crest on its lower jaw, which it presumably had on the upper jaw as well.

“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.

According to the paper authored by Richards, Salisbury and Paul E. Stumkat, “Local fossicker [gold hunter] Len Shaw discovered [the fossil] in June 2011 at a site known as the ‘water pond’ at the ‘8 mile pits’ (now known as the ‘Free Fossil Hunting Site 1’), approximately 12 km NW of the town of Richmond, North West Queensland.”

Shaw's name is immortalised in the fossil’s name as well as the First Nations peoples of Wanamara. The beast is called Thapunngaka shawi in honour of the indigenous Wanamara people of Australia, ‘thapun’ meaning ‘spear’ and ‘ngaka’ meaning ‘mouth’, while the species name ‘shawi’ is in reference to the fossil’s discoverer Len Shaw. Together, they mean ‘Shaw’s spear mouth’.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies