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Largest known flying reptile was like a real-life dragon

A massive pterosaur once flew over the Australian outback with a wingspan of over 22 feet, according to a new study from the University of Queensland. The experts report that this “fearsome dragon” is the largest known flying reptile of its kind. 

The research team was led by PhD candidate Tim Richards from the Dinosaur Lab in UQ’s School of Biological Sciences. The study was focused on a fossil of the creature’s jaw that was discovered in Wanamara Country of Northwest Queensland.

“It’s the closest thing we have to a real life dragon,” said Richards. “The new pterosaur, which we named 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 dinosaur that wouldn’t have heard it until it was too late.”

Richards said the skull alone would have been just over one meter long, containing around 40 teeth that were perfectly suited for grasping the fish that once inhabited the Eromanga Sea.

“It’s tempting to think it may have swooped like a magpie during mating season, making your local magpie swoop look pretty trivial – no amount of zip ties would have saved you.”

“Though, to be clear, it was nothing like a bird, or even a bat – Pterosaurs were a successful and diverse group of reptiles – the very first back-boned animals to take a stab at powered flight.”

The newly described species belonged to a group of pterosaurs known as anhanguerians. During the Age of Dinosaurs, anhanguerians could be found on every continent.

Pterosaurs were built with hollow bones that were ideal for powered flight. Considering that these bones also had thin walls, their fossilised remains are rare and often poorly preserved, explained the researchers.

“It’s quite amazing fossils of these animals exist at all,” said Richards. “By world standards, the Australian pterosaur record is poor, but the discovery of Thapunngaka contributes greatly to our understanding of Australian pterosaur diversity.”

According to study co-author Dr. Steve Salisbury, what was particularly striking about this new species of anhanguerian was the massive size of the bony crest on its lower jaw, which it presumably had on the upper jaw as well.

“These crests probably played a role in the flight dynamics of these creatures, and hopefully future research will deliver more definitive answers,” said Dr. Salisbury.

The study is published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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