Researchers unearth 'iron dragon' of ancient Queensland outback

An artist's impression of Ferrodraco lentoni, which ruled the skies of ancient Queensland until around 90 million years agoCREDIT:TRAVIS R. TISCHLER

Scientists have discovered a new type of pterosaur in outback Queensland, with the find rewriting the history of the species.

Pterosaurs were ancient flying reptiles, close cousins of dinosaurs, which ruled the skies of the ancient world for over 150 million years.

This pterosaur was discovered in the fossil fields around Winton in regional Queensland in 2017, and the research team believes it’s a member of a group of pterosaurs which were thought to have gone extinct around 94 million years ago.

Paleontologist Adele Pentland is spearheading the team researching the newly discovered pterosaur, and said they believe it survived until around 90 million years ago.

“It would have been into the Cretaceous period, around 30 million years before all dinosaurs and many other animals went extinct,” Ms Pentland said.

The animals belonged to a group of pterosaurs called Anhanguera, and the researchers have named it Ferrodraco lentoni.

The “lentoni” is in honour of former Winton Shire mayor Graham Thomas ‘Butch’ Lenton, who died in 2017, while “Ferrodraco” is Latin for “Iron Dragon”.

Adele Pentland with the Iron Dragon's skull.CREDIT:

The reasons for calling a flying reptile with a four metre wingspan a dragon should be self-evident, but the “iron” part comes from the ironstone which forms the fossil.

“Pterosaur bones are primarily hollow and that’s one reason why they’re so rare in the fossil record,” Ms Pentland said.

“In this case it seems the carcass got covered with sediment very quickly and then iron-rich fluids which have permeated the bones and left behind this really tough rock which filled any voids in there and made them nice and strong.”

Indeed it is so strong that the actual fossil specimens are able to be put on display for the public at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum, just outside of Winton.

Many fossils on public display at museums around the world are casts, with the originals usually considered too fragile for public exhibition.

Based on its teeth and body structure, Ms Pentland said it probably ate fish, with the arid region of Winton today a dense wetland when Butch’s Iron Dragon still flew through the skies.

In total the researchers unearthed a large portion of Ferrodraco’s jaw, skull and crest, along with five partial vertebrae, eight limb bones and 40 isolated and partial teeth.

In all the 30 major bones from Ferrodraco make up about 10 per cent of its body, a relatively large amount in paleontological terms.

Ms Pentland, who is currently doing a PhD through Swinburne University, said they also represent a tripling in the total number of pterosaur bones found in Australia.

“The first pterosaur fossils in Australia were discovered around 1980, compared to the first ever in the world which were found in the 18th century, so there’s a lot of catching up to do,” she said.