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This Just-Discovered Flying Reptile Once Soared Through Australia's Prehistoric Skies Like a Dragon

Named 'Thapunngaka shawi', the pterosaur had a one-metre-long skull and a wingspan of seven metres.
By Sarah Ward
August 10, 2021
By Sarah Ward
August 10, 2021

Welcome to... your latest excuse to imagine what Australia looked like back in prehistoric times, and to picture which creatures roamed the land and flew through the sky all those years ago. After the nation's largest ever dinosaur, Australotitan cooperensis, was identified back in June, the country's largest flying reptile has just been named as well. Meet Thapunngaka shawi, a creature that researchers have described as "the closest thing we have to a real-life dragon."

Making that statement: University of Queensland PhD candidate Tim Richards, from the Dinosaur Lab in UQ's School of Biological Sciences. He led a research team that analysed a fossil of the creature's jaw, which was found on Wanamara Country, near Richmond in northwest Queensland.

"It was essentially just a skull with a long neck, bolted on a pair of long wings," said Richards. "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."

If your mind has jumped to depictions of dragons in pop culture — Game of Thrones, obviously — that's not quite how artists' impressions of Thapunngaka shawi look. But this creature does appear immensely imposing. And, obviously, quite big. Researchers believe that its skull would've measured one metre in length — and contained around 40 teeth — and its wingspan would've hit seven metres.

The pterosaur — a class of flying reptiles that existed around 228–66 million years ago — would've flown over the inland sea that once took up much of outback Queensland, too. And although it has just been given a name now, this specific fossil was actually found back in June 2011 by Richmond local Len Shaw, who located the specimen just northwest of the town.

Tim Richards with the skull of an anhanguerian pterosaur. Credit Tim Richards

Thapunngaka shawi also belongs to a particular group of pterosaurs known as anhanguerians, and is just the third species of anhanguerian pterosaurs ever found in Australia — all three in western Queensland.

It has been named for the Wanamara words for 'spear' and 'mouth', as well as for Shaw — with its full name meaning 'Shaw's spear mouth'.

Like Australotitan cooperensis, Thapunngaka shawi's fossil is on display to the public, this time at Kronosaurus Korner in Richmond. And yes, if Jurassic Park or Jurassic World ever happened to become a reality in Queensland, recreating local dinos in the process, we'd all come face to face with quite the mammoth creatures — and stand beneath them while they swooped through the air, clearly.

Also in the state, in Winton, Queensland is already home to a dinosaur-focused museum — because that's where other dinosaur fossils were found back in 1999. So yes, your next road trip can involve trekking across the outback to check out these fascinating remnants of the earth's past. Life keeps finding a way, obviously.

Find the Kronosaurus Korner at 91-93 Goldring Street, Richmond — open from 8.30am–4pm daily from April–October, and 8.30am–4pm Monday–Friday and 8.30am–3pm Saturday–Sunday between November–March. For further information, head to the University of Queensland website.

Top image: Artist's impression of the fearsome Thapunngaka shawi.

Published on August 10, 2021 by Sarah Ward


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