Game of Thrones honoured in new classification of pterosaur

Alison Flood
Game of Thrones honoured in new classification of pterosaur. Targaryendraco wiedenrothi has been renamed after House of Targaryen in George RR Martin’s fantasy saga

George RR Martin is celebrating after a palaeontologist, who named a new genus of pterosaur after the dragons of House Targaryen, agreed with him that dragons should have two, rather than four, legs.

The fossilised bones of Targaryendraco wiedenrothi, which lived 130m years ago, were discovered by Kurt Wiedenroth in 1984 in northern Germany. The specimen was originally classified within the Ornithocheirus group of pterosaurs, as Ornithocheirus wiedenrothi, but the toothy pterosaur has now been reassigned to the new genus Targaryendraco. Six other already known pterosaurs were also found to be closely related to the group, which features pterosaurs with wingspans between 10 and 26 feet, and narrow snouts.

“All these species are from shallow coastal environments and probably fed on fish,” study leader Rodrigo Pêgas, a palaeontologist at Federal University of ABC in São Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, told National Geographic. “The slenderness of jaw is the main feature they share … it’s the most extreme slenderness in the jaws of any toothed pterosaurs.”

The wings, he added, “were elongate and narrow, and this shape is specific for modern birds and bats that fish on the wing”.

Martin called the decision to name the genus after the former royal house from his Game of Thrones books “really too cool”.

“I am delighted, needless to say. Especially by the kind words of the discoverer, paleontologist Rodrigo Pêgas, who is solidly on my side about dragons having two legs, not four,” he said.

Pêgas and his co-authors chose the name because the oddly dark fossils reminded them of the black bones of the dragons from Martin’s fantasy series, and because “pterosaurs have inspired some biological aspects of the dragons”, they write.

Dragons are often depicted with four legs and two wings – “but this doesn’t make any biological sense,” Pêgas told National Geographic – whereas Martin’s versions have two hind legs and two wings. “I always thought this was very nice, especially because I work on pterosaurs,” said Pêgas, adding that he was “a big nerd and a big fan of Game of Thrones”.

According to biologists, however, Martin’s dragons would not have been able to fly. “Some estimates suggest that the biggest pterosaurs were at the limit of the weight of viable flying animals and yet the dragons have smaller wings, smaller muscles and none of the weight saving in the bones, legs or tail. They would have been grounded even before we take into account the full sizes that these animals are supposed to get to (capable of swallowing a horse apparently!),” wrote Dr Dave Hone in the Guardian, after analysing the possibilities.

Martin said there was, sadly, “no evidence that the real-life Targaryendraco wiedenrothi actually breathed fire”.

“No evidence… yet,” added the novelist, who is working on the sixth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, The Winds of Winter.