Flying Terror: A Giant Winged Reptile Fossil Unearthed in Australia

A scientist holding the fossil of the newly-discovered pterosaur
University of Queensland

It’s too bad the dinosaurs are extinct—they are fascinating. Actually, nevermind, this one is terrifying! Researchers just discovered an enormous dragon-like reptile fossil in Australia. In fact, it’s now the continent’s largest-ever flying reptile fossil.

The new findings were recently published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology and were an exciting discovery to dig up. The creature is a type of pterosaur, or flying reptile, that soared through the skies naught but 105 million years ago in the early Cretaceous period. Dubbed Thapunngaka shawi, the pterosaur likely lived in the area near the Eromanga Inland Sea, a region that was once located in eastern Australia. 

“It’s the closest thing we have to a real-life dragon,” said Tim Richards, the study’s co-author and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Queensland. Its wings featured membranes stretched between their fingers, not feathers, unlike the other beasts they shared the sky with.

The pterosaur boasted a truly impressive wingspan, measuring 23 feet (imagine that swooping down on ya!). It had a three-foot-long skull that featured a pointed snout—for snatching up whatever it wanted—and 40 sharp teeth. It likely consumed a fish-based diet.

Although Thapunngaka shawi was discovered more than a decade ago, in north Queensland, it took until just recently to determine that it is, in fact, a brand new species. With over 200 types of pterosaur—like the tiny Anurognathus or the 16-foot-tall Quetzalcoatlus—scientists needed a long time to determine this for sure. It’s always exciting to discover a new species!

Part of what makes the find so thrilling is that pterosaurs are rare to find and difficult to learn about since they have bones that are lightweight and brittle. “Pterosaurs don’t preserve well,” said Richards. “Most of these things likely fell into the sea on death and were gobbled up by predatory beasts in the sea. A lot of them would never have made it to the sea floor to start that fossilization process.”

Artist's impression of the fearsome Thapunngaka shawi.
University of Queensland

The story of the dinosaur’s genus name is equally fascinating. “The genus name, Thapunngaka, incorporates thapun [ta-boon] and ngaka [nga-ga], the Wanamara words for “spear” and “mouth,” respectively, reveals study author Steve Salisbury, a paleontologist at the University of Queensland.

While scientists have found pterosaur fossils dating back to 250 million years ago, some pterosaur fossils have been dated as recently as just 66 million years ago. And as far as we know, pterosaurs were the first vertebrates to master flight. More like dino-soar, am I right?

via Smithsonian Magazine

Suzanne Humphries Suzanne Humphries
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