Scientists have discovered a new species of a prehistoric flying reptile in outback Queensland, describing it as the closest thing we have to Australia’s very own dragon.
The pterosaur, named Thapunngaka shawi, is the largest of its kind found in Australia.
With an estimated wingspan of seven metres, the reptile once soared above the vast ancient Eromanga sea, which covered much of western Queensland during the age of the dinosaurs.
University of Queensland (UQ) researchers have published their findings in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
The pterosaur fossil — a lower jaw bone — was discovered in a quarry near Richmond in 2011 by Len Shaw, a local fossicker who had been “scratching around” in the area for decades.
Mr Shaw recognised it as something significant and called Paul Stumkat, the then-curator at Richmond’s Kronosaurus Korner marine fossil museum and co-author of the research paper to help to excavate it. Mr Stumkat recognised it belonged to a pterosaur and prepared the specimen in the museum prior to it being studied.
The discovery of a new pterosaur species follows the official recognition of Australia’s largest dinosaur species in June 2021.
The Australotitan cooperensis or “southern titan” sauropod would have been up to 6.5 metres tall and 30 metres long and is among the biggest dinosaurs in the world.
Its bones were found near Cooper Creek in central west Queensland in 2006.
‘A fearsome beast’
The pterosaur fossil remained a mystery for a decade after Mr Shaw found it. It may have stayed that way for longer if researcher Tim Richards had stuck with his acting career.
The NIDA graduate, who performed on stage with Cate Blanchett in A Streetcar Named Desire in 2009 and played Pumbaa in the first Australian tour of The Lion King, became a paleontologist in 2015.
A chance meeting with Dr Patrick Smith, then the curator of the Kronosaurus Korner museum, at a Palaeo Down Under conference in Adelaide in 2016 led Mr Richards to the ancient jaw that was held in a drawer at the Richmond museum.
Mr Richards went on to lead the UQ Dinosaur Lab research team that analysed the fossil.
“The more I worked on it, I realised we had never seen some of the anatomical features before and thought this must be something new,” he said.
“It’s the closest thing we have to a real-life dragon.
“It 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 onto a pair of long wings.
“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.”
Mr Richards said the skull alone would have been just over a metre long and contained around 40 teeth, perfectly suited to grasping the many fish known to inhabit Queensland’s no-longer-existent Eromanga Sea.
“It was nothing like a bird or even a bat,” he said.
“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 belongs to a group of pterosaurs known as Anhanguerians, which inhabited every continent during the latter part of the time of the dinosaurs.
Their fossilised remains are rare and often poorly preserved because pterosaurs had thin-walled and relatively hollow bones to enable powerful flight.
“It’s quite amazing [that] fossils of these animals exist at all,” Mr 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.”
Mr Richards is currently researching other pterosaur fossils found at Richmond.
“We are not sure if they are new (species) and they may be too fragmentary to be able to determine the species,” he said.
Shaw’s spear mouth
Thapunngaka shawi is only the third species of Anhanguerian pterosaur discovered in Australia — all of which have been found in western Queensland.
Dr Steven Salisbury, the co-author of the research paper, said this new species is striking for the massive size of the bony crest on its lower jaw.
“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.
Australia’s newly recognised pterosaur species remains at the Kronosaurus Korner museum in Richmond. It now takes pride of place in a display case and its label has been updated from “pterosaur ad indeterminatum” (indeterminate pterosaur).
The name of the new species honours the First Nations peoples of the Richmond area where the fossil was found, incorporating words from the now-extinct language of the Wanamara Nation.
“The genus name, Thapunngaka, incorporates thapun and ngaka, the Wanamara words for ‘spear’ and ‘mouth’, respectively,” Dr Salisbury said.
“The species name, shawi, honours the fossil’s discoverer Len Shaw, so the name means ‘Shaw’s spear mouth’.”
Mr Richards paid tribute to Mr Shaw.
“He had the nous to know it was scientifically important and called in the museum,” he said.
“Hats off to Len because unfortunately people find stuff and it ends up on someone’s mantlepiece. The science world will never hear about it and the world won’t know about it.
“You can’t research stuff that’s on someone’s mantlepiece.”