The Sciences

4 Dragons That Have Entered the Fossil Record

Some paleontologists don’t mind leaning into the popularity of dragons, especially if it attracts more interest in and attention to their work.

By Stephen C. GeorgeJan 24, 2023 2:00 PM
Pterosaur
(Credit: Warpaint/Shutterstock)

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Old-school paleontologists would have frowned upon a colleague referring to a fossil find as anything like a dragon. Certainly in the early days of this branch of science, it must have been a tad exasperating to explain to non-scientists that the giant bone they found in the local quarry, or ground up for some folk remedy was not evidence of a legendary cryptid, but was instead a precious artifact worthy of preservation and legitimate study.  

But if additions to the fossil record over the past couple of decades are anything to go by, paleontologists have loosened up a little. Many seem all too happy to describe their finds — and even give them scientific names — in terms that reference popular dragon lore.


Read More: The Mysterious Origin of Dragons


And why not? If referring to a new fossil find in dragon-y terms garners more public interest and attention to your work and your field, then what’s the harm? As proof, here are four examples of dragon discoveries that caught our attention (and probably yours, too). 

1. Argentina’s Dragon of Death (2022)

(Credit: National University of Cuyo)

The most recent entry in this list, let’s be clear, is not a dinosaur. It’s actually a pterosaur — the biggest pterosaur ever found in South America. Two examples were uncovered in the Argentinian province of Mendoza, the biggest of which had a wingspan of roughly 30 feet — about the size of a modern hang glider. Dating to the late Cretaceous period, these large-skulled, flying reptiles died more than 86 million years ago, but time did not erode their ability to impress the researchers who found them.

The fossils were named as two examples in the species Thanatosdrakon amaru. The species name, amaru, refers to an Incan deity and means, essentially, flying serpent. The genus name is literally Greek for dragon of death. The fossils, and a life-sized reproduction of one of those dragons, is on display at the National University of Cuyo in Mendoza.  

2. Australia’s Spear-Mouthed Dragon (2021)

(Credit: Warpaint/Shutterstock)

Another pterosaur, whose discovery was announced a year earlier than Argentina’s death dragon, didn’t have quite the wingspan of its South American counterpart. The fossil that was uncovered did, however, possess a spear-like mouth and a row of teeth straight out of House of the Dragon. Dating to more than 150 million years ago, the pterosaur holds pride of place as the largest flying reptile yet discovered in Australia.

It didn’t hurt its public profile that, in announcing the find, the University of Queensland team who analyzed the fossil was unabashed in describing their discovery in the fieriest, most dragon-like way.

“It’s the closest thing we have to a real dragon,” gushed one member of the team in a news release. “This thing would have been quite savage.”

When the university news release announcing the find is pleased to call it a savage thing, you know it’s impressive. The paleontology team eventually settled on the official name of Thapunngaka shawi. The genus name is derived from Indigenous words that literally mean spear mouth, while the species name acknowledges one Len Shaw, a local fossil hunter who initially discovered the unidentified specimen in 2011. The Aussie dragon is currently on display in a Queensland museum.   

3. The Amazing Dragon of Lingwu, China (2018)

(Credit: Zhang Zongda)

Visually, Lingwulong shenqi may be the biggest letdown of dinosaurs on this list. After all, there’s little about it that would immediately bring to mind visions of a rapacious, fire-breathing monster: no terrifying wingspan, no sharply angular horned head. It wasn’t even a meat-eater, but a gentle giant of an herbivore. From a pop-culture perspective, the most dragon-like thing about this dinosaur is its name, which translates, in Mandarin, as “amazing dragon of Lingwu,” the Chinese city near where the specimens were found.

From a scientific perspective, however, this dragon’s discovery was both exciting and unexpected. As Discover noted when the study describing it was first published, this 174-million-year-old diplodocoid was, by a good 15 million years, the oldest of its kind known to date, certainly the earliest example known in China. At a stroke, the discovery of this creature reset the evolutionary timeline of one of the most massive dinosaurs ever to stride the planet. That’s an amazing dragon indeed. 


Read More: Meet Lingwulong, The "Amazing Dragon"


4. Dracorex Hogwartsia, U.S. (2004)

(Credit: Daniel Schwen/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, we saved the most dragon-like, dragon-named, dragonesque fossil for last. It was found in South Dakota, in part of the Hell Creek Formation, one of the most famous and productive areas of fossil discovery in the world. This almost-complete skull is festooned with hornlike spikes, an unusual configuration for this dinosaur, which was determined in 2006 to be a previously unknown type of Pachycephalosaurus.

Dubbed a “total paleontological surprise” by no less an authority than the famous Robert Bakker, the skull presents a fierce aspect indeed, although pachycephalosaurs were not predators. This particular herbivore dates as far back as 90 million years.

The paleontologists who made the initial find decided to donate the skull to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. With an ear for the kind of nomenclature likely to excite their target audience (and Harry Potter fans everywhere), the museum chose the specimen’s official name, Dracorex hogwartsia. It means — you'll never guess! — “Dragon King of Hogwarts.”

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