Iron dragon Queensland, A new pterosaur, or prehistoric flying reptile species.
There’s hope the rare discovery of a new species of pterosaur in the Queensland outback will attract much-needed tourists to drought-affected towns.
In 2017, while working on his sheep and cattle station in the state’s central west, Bob Elliot uncovered a 96-million-year-old “iron dragon”.
After removing invasive weeds from a creek on Belmont Station — located some 170 kilometres northwest of Longreach — the grazier made his way up to a ridge where he noticed quite a few interesting rocks.
With some spare time on his hands, Elliot decided to have a little look around.
“I had my hopes of finding something but not really expecting anything good,” he told 10 daily.
“That’s when I came across what would have been a bone probably about two inches long and an inch wide, and I could tell straight away it was a bone,” he said.
The son of a field palaeontologist, Elliot was no stranger to fossil material. On the same property 18 years prior, his father David Elliot had discovered what was, at the time, Australia’s largest dinosaur.
“Just before I left I found quite a large piece. It would have been as big as my fist and that’s when I noticed it had teeth in it, so that’s when I got pretty excited,” he said.
The Queenslander took the piece to the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum in Winton, where it was quickly determined what he had picked up was no old sheep bone.
In a paper published in Scientific Reports on Friday, researchers from the museum detailed the discovery of a previously unidentified species of pterosaur — a flying reptile closely related to dinosaurs and birds.
As it turned out, Elliot’s mysterious bones belong to the most complete pterosaur ever found in Australia, estimated to be approximately 96 million years old.
“It’s really exciting and it totally blew us away because the discovery was just a chance find,” lead author Adele Pentland told 10 daily.
Pterosaurs were the first vertebrates to ever fly, initially appearing on the planet during the Triassic period 215 million years ago before going extinct about 150 million years later.
Species ranged from the size of a tiny sparrow up to massive apex predators of the sky, with wingspans of nearly 12 metres.
Arguably, the most famous pterosaur is the pterodactyl — well-known for swooping in and carrying unsuspecting people off in films like Jurassic World and One Million Years B.C.
Pentland and colleagues named their newly discovered pterosaur– which has a wingspan of about four metres — Ferrodraco lentoni, or “Lenton’s Iron Dragon”.
Ferrodraco refers to the Latin for iron and for dragon, while lentoni is a tribute to the former Mayor of Winton, Graham ‘Butch’ Lenton, who passed away a few months after the site’s excavation.
Preserved in ironstone for millions of years, the bones found on the Winton Formation are exceptionally unique in that they are strong and solid.
Pterosaur bones are hollow and paper-thin, which has left international scientists with only limited, fragmentary remains with which to piece together the animal’s evolution and biology.
Staff and volunteers from the museum spent two weeks excavating the delicate Queensland site, uncovering five partial vertebrae, eight limb bones, a large portion of the jaw, skull and crest, and 40 isolated and partial teeth.
“With a total of 30 bones preserved, or 10 percent of Ferrodraco’s skeleton, the number of pterosaur bones reported from Australia has now tripled,” Pentland said.
The research on Ferrodraco, which Pentland is spearheading as part of her PhD through Swinburne University of Technology, has already delivered insights into this close cousin of the dinosaurs.
“We basically worked out the Australian pterosaurs are more closely related to those that lived in England than South America,” she said.
This initially struck researchers as odd, considering Australia and South America once formed part of the supercontinent Gondwana.
“But this sort of tells us that these pterosaurs could basically fly wherever they wanted, you know, the ocean wasn’t a barrier for them to disperse into new areas,” Portland said.