Science

7-meter-wide "spear-mouth" pterosaur was Australia's largest flying reptile

7-meter-wide "spear-mouth" pte...
An artist's impression of Thapunngaka shawi, which was the largest known flying reptile in Australia
An artist's impression of Thapunngaka shawi, which was the largest known flying reptile in Australia
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An artist's impression of Thapunngaka shawi, which was the largest known flying reptile in Australia
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An artist's impression of Thapunngaka shawi, which was the largest known flying reptile in Australia
Lead researcher Tim Richards with the skull of a related pterosaur species
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Lead researcher Tim Richards with the skull of a related pterosaur species
The section of lower jawbone that Thapunngaka shawi was described from
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The section of lower jawbone that Thapunngaka shawi was described from
A size comparison of Thapunngaka shawi against an average human, and two other species of Australian pterosaurs
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A size comparison of Thapunngaka shawi against an average human, and two other species of Australian pterosaurs
A size comparison of Thapunngaka shawi against the modern wedge-tailed eagle, and a hang glider
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A size comparison of Thapunngaka shawi against the modern wedge-tailed eagle, and a hang glider
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Paleontologists have discovered the largest known flying reptile that ever took to the Australian skies. Named Thapunngaka shawi, this “fearsome dragon” sported a 7-m (23-ft) wingspan and a jaw full of awful jagged teeth.

Although they’re not technically dinosaurs themselves, pterosaurs soared over their heads for hundreds of millions of years. These flying reptiles ranged in size from a cat to a Cessna, and were the first known vertebrates to evolve powered flight.

Because of their delicate bones, pterosaurs don’t fossilize as well as larger animals of their time, so fewer than 20 specimens have ever been found in Australia. And the newly discovered Thapunngaka is the largest so far – its estimated wingspan is more than twice that of the largest living flying bird, the southern royal albatross. It appears to date back to the early Cretaceous period, between around 145 and 100 million years ago.

Lead researcher Tim Richards with the skull of a related pterosaur species
Lead researcher Tim Richards with the skull of a related pterosaur species

A team of scientists described the species from a section of lower jaw found in a quarry in northwest Queensland, Australia. Its skull alone would have been more than 1 m (3.3 ft) long, lined with about 40 sharp teeth that would have helped it grasp fish – or perhaps small or baby dinosaurs.

“It’s the closest thing we have to a real-life dragon,” says Tim Richards, lead researcher on the study. “Thapunngaka shawi would have been a fearsome beast, with a spear-like mouth and a wingspan around seven meters. 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.”

A size comparison of Thapunngaka shawi against an average human, and two other species of Australian pterosaurs
A size comparison of Thapunngaka shawi against an average human, and two other species of Australian pterosaurs

The name pays respect to the First Nations peoples of the area where the fossil was found – “Thapunngaka” means “spear mouth” in the language of the Wanamara Nation, while “shawi” comes from the fossil-hunter who first discovered the fragment, Len Shaw.

The fossil is now on display at the Kronosaurus Korner museum in Richmond, Queensland.

The study was published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. The team describes the find in the video below.

'Fearsome dragon’ that soared over outback Queensland found

Source: University of Queensland

View gallery - 5 images
3 comments
3 comments
paul314
It's always fascinating to see a complete description of a prehistoric creature based on fragments of a few body parts. How many of those have been revised when additional pieces were discovered?
Eddy
It's uncanny how folklore stories are slowly coming true, with the exception of our ancestors riding on them of course but who knows.
ljaques
Boy howdy! Pelicans sure have mellowed over the years.