Around 105 million years ago, a giant, winged reptile soared above modern-day Australia. The creature is the newest member of the extinct clade of flying reptiles calls pterosaurs and it’s the continent’s largest-ever flying reptile, according to a new study published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
“It’s the closest thing we have to a real-life dragon,” Tim Richards, a University of Queensland Ph.D. candidate and study co-author, said in a statement.
In addition to its school-bus-length wingspan, the creature had a three-foot-long skull with a pointed snout and around 40 sharp teeth. This pterosaur likely lived and hunted for fish near the Eromanga Inland Sea, a large inland sea that once occupied much of eastern Australia during the early Cretaceous period.
“It wasn’t built to eat broccoli,” Richards tells Royce Kurmelovs of the Guardian. “It would have been a fearsome sight.”
Though the fossil was found in northwest Queensland over a decade ago, researchers weren’t able to prove it was a new species until now. There are over 200 species of pterosaur, ranging from the 16-foot-tall Quetzalcoatlus to the sparrow-sized Anurognathus. Unlike the feathered birds they shared the sky with, pterosaurs stayed aloft on membrane wings stretched between their fingers.
The University of Queensland team that made the discovery deduced the reptile’s size and unique species characteristics from its jaw. They named the new pterosaur Thapunngaka shawi, incorporating words from the now-extinct language of the Wanamara Nation, one of Australia’s Indigenous First Peoples groups.
"The genus name, Thapunngaka, incorporates thapun [ta-boon] and ngaka [nga-ga], the Wanamara words for 'spear' and 'mouth', respectively," study author Steve Salisbury, a paleontologist at the University of Queensland, tells Science Alert’s Michelle Starr.
Because they have brittle, lightweight bones, it’s challenging to find pterosaur fossils in Australia or anywhere else in the world. As a result, much of their lives are a mystery to paleontologists.
“Pterosaurs don’t preserve well,” Richards tells the Guardian. “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.”
Just last month, a research team from the U.K. learned that baby pterosaurs can fly within hours or minutes of hatching from their gull-sized eggs. One of the most interesting aspects of the Thapunngaka shawi fossil discovery, says Salisbury to Jon Parton of Courthouse News, is the evidence of matching boney crests on the reptile’s lower and upper jaw.
“These crests probably played a role in the flight dynamics of these creatures, and hopefully future research will deliver more definitive answers,” Salisbury tells Courthouse News.
Pterosaurs are particularly intriguing because they were the first vertebrates to master flight, soaring above their dinosaur cousins on the ground. Some pterosaurs existed as recently as 66 million years ago, but others date as far as 250 million years ago. This discovery marks the third species of anhanguerian pterosaur known to science, all of which come from western Queensland.