Artist’s impression of the fearsome Thapunngaka shawi.

(Adobe stock)

Have you ever wondered if the fearsome dragons are merely a mythical construct—the figment of some ancient storytellers’ imagination—or is there a fraction of reality attached to their existence? Well, Timothy Richards, a research scholar at the University of Queensland, seems to have found some answers!

We know the ‘Land Down Under’ hosted some enormous beasts millions of years ago. But what if such insanely large creatures flew? Recently, a team of palaeontologists led by Tim uncovered evidence to support the existence of the closest animal to such a real-life dragon.

Studying the fossil remains of the extinct flying reptiles called pterosaurs—particularly their jaw—the researchers drew several impressive conclusions. The findings suggest that this reptile of dragon-like proportions was a fearsome creature with a long neck, broad wings and a large skull.

In fact, researchers found that the wings of these pterosaurs spanned a width of approximately seven meters, and its skull, a little over one meter—nearly as long as a five-year-old child. Its mouth was spearlike and boasted a row of around 40 teeth, perfect for grabbing fish.

Mr Richards seen here with the Thapunngaka shawi skull. (University Of Queensland)

Mr. Richards seen here with the Thapunngaka shawi skull.

(University Of Queensland)

“This thing would have been quite savage. It would have cast a great shadow over some quivering little dinosaur that wouldn’t have heard it until it was too late,” remarked Tim.

In honour of Len Shaw, this creature was named Thapunngaka shawi. Shaw first dug up the fossil back in 2011 near Richmond, Australia. The name is also in homage to the First Nations people of the area where Len found this fossil and incorporates words from the now-extinct language of the Wanamara Nation.

The Thapunngaka shawi belongs to a group of pterosaurs known as anhanguerian. It is the third such animal with a place of discovery falling in Western Queensland. It stood out from other anhanguerians in terms of having a massive bony crest on its jaw. “These crests probably played a role in the flight dynamics of these creatures, and hopefully, future research will deliver more definitive answers,” says Dr Steve Salisbury, a co-author on the paper.

As these reptiles evolved for powered flights, their bones were hollow and thin-walled. Tim highlights the rarity of such brittle fossil remains standing the test of time, considering the anhanguerians existed during the latter part of the Age of Dinosaurs, roughly 100 million years ago.

Nevertheless, the existence of this fossil has given us an insight into the diversity that the pterosaur group displayed. Thanks to Tim and his team, we now have a peek into a world where these mighty reptiles dominated the skies during the Cretaceous period.

The study was published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology this week and can be accessed here.

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