A fearsome beast with 22 foot wings. A mouth like a spear. The closest thing we’ve ever seen to a real life dragon.
This is how Tim Richards describes the Thapunngaka shawi, a flying reptile whose fossils he has been studying at the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Queensland. The pterosaur is believed to have once flew over the Australian outback, long ago soaring over the inland seas rather than the desert.
“This would have been pretty wild,” said Richards, a doctoral student. “It would have cast a big shadow on some trembling little dinosaur who wouldn’t have heard it until it was too late.”
The name Thapunngaka shawi means “Shaw’s spear mouth”, and the second half is a reference to its discoverer Len Shaw. The genus name, Thapunngaka, is inspired by the now-extinct language of the Wanamara nation, one of the First Nations peoples of Australia.
Pterosaurs populated the earth as recently as 66 million years ago,, and already 228 million years ago. They are distinguished by being the first creature with vertebrae, that is, a creature with a backbone, to take flight. The most famous pterosaur is the pterodacylus, which is why pterosaurs are often incorrectly referred to as pterodactyls.
Scientists still have a lot to learn about ancient creatures. Research published in the journal iScience in April showed that the secret of pterosaur physiology was their neck, longer than a giraffe’s and cleverly arranged by Mother Nature to support their heavy heads during flight. Research published last month suggests many pterosaurs were able to fly by the time they hatched from their eggs.
To allow flight, pterodactyls tend to have thinner and more brittle bones than other dinosaurs. That makes fossils as well-preserved as the one Richards is studying rare. Based on the jaw fossils being studied, Richards estimates that the skull would only extend more than 3.2 feet and have 40 (terrifying) teeth.
“By world standards, the Australian pterosaur record is poor, but the Thapunngaka discovery contributes greatly to our understanding of Australian pterosaur diversity.”