With 22-ft (7-m) wings and a spear-like mouth, a flying reptile, which is the closest thing we have to a real-life dragon, terrorized Australia's skies millions of years ago.
A fossil of the creature's jaw that was discovered in a quarry by a local fossicker in June 2011 has been studied by University of Queensland researchers, and what they've discovered tells a rather fearsome story.
The pterosaur, which the researchers named Thapunngaka shawi and is thought to be Australia's largest flying reptile, would have ruled the skies of the ancient inland sea that once covered much of Queensland, according to a press release by the university.
"This thing would have been quite a savage," said Tim Richards, a Ph.D. student from the Dinosaur Lab in UQ's School of Biological Sciences who led the study. "It would have cast a great shadow over some quivering little dinosaur that wouldn't have heard it until it was too late."
Pterosaurs, the first vertebrae creatures to fly, existed as recently as 66 million years ago and as far back as 228 million years ago. They had thin-walled and relatively hollow bones that were optimized for flight, making their fossilized remains rare and often poorly preserved, which is why we don't know much about them.
With 22-foot (7-meter) wings and a spear-like mouth, a flying reptile, which is the closest thing we had to a real-life dragon, terrorized Australia's skies millions of years ago.
The new species belonged to the anhanguerians, a group of pterosaurs that lived on every continent during the Age of Dinosaurs. It is only the third anhanguerian pterosaur species discovered in Australia, and our knowledge of it is limited to a lower jaw fragment and what we know about other anhanguerian pterosaurs.
According to the study published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, its skull alone would have been slightly more than 3.3 feet (a meter) long, with around 40 teeth. This would make it the ultimate predator, its long, powerful jaw perfectly evolved to feast on many fishes known to inhabit Queensland's now-defunct Eromanga Sea.
Among the study, what piqued the researchers' interest most was a large bony crest on the bottom of the jaw, and based on what we know so far, the animal's top jaw also had a crest.
"These crests probably played a role in the flight dynamics of these creatures, and hopefully future research will deliver more definitive answers," Dr. Steve Salisbury, paper's co-author and Richard’s Ph.D. supervisor, said.
The researchers were able to estimate its size based on this crest, and if their estimates are correct, T. shawi would be the world's third-largest anhanguerian pterosaur.