To the untrained ear, dinosaur Pantydraco, or “Panty dragon”, sounds like a children’s mascot for pull-up pants or a lizard that skips around wearing them. Fortunately it’s neither, and is named after the quarry Pant-y-ffynnon – or “valley of the spring” – in South Wales where it was found. So fittingly enough, it’s a Welsh dragon!
This 205-201 million year-old beastie walked on two legs and had a long neck, so it at least stood up like a dragon. Although it’s a sauropodomorph – think Diplodocus or Brachiosaurus – it was nowhere near that big, and may have used its stabby thumb-claws for defence. Unlike its plant-munching descendants it may have also grabbed a meaty treat if the opportunity arose.
This was the Triassic, after all, when dinos were at the beginning of their reign and still finding their feet in this brave new world. Well that, and its teeth could only deal with the plants that didn’t put up a fight.
As often happens with a stack of similar-looking, two-hundred-million year-old bones, Pantydraco’s remains were initially tossed in the bucket of an existing species, Thecodontosaurus, the “socket-toothed reptile” and palaeontological pride of Bristol.
Even though it was first dug up in the 1950s, Pantydraco didn’t see the light of day until 2007, when Galton, Yates and Kermack spotted parts of its arm, vertebrae and skull hinted at a new species. As an aside, I love an academic paper that uses the word “fabulous”.
Funny I should mention “light of day” too, because the story of its remains, and that of the Welsh dragons, have something in common.
Go back about 200 million years when Pantydraco tottered about, and Earth is a different place. Our seven continents are still smushed into the supercontinent Pangaea, and modern-day Wales is somewhere in the northern centre of it all.
Not only that, but Pant-y-ffynnon Quarry is part of a string of small islands in tropical waters, criss-crossed with limestone cave cracks. And guess who lords overs some of it? Pantydraco.
Keeble et al. found over 800 animals in just seven rocks from the area and time period, which gives us a good guess at the local wildlife. About 98% were dinky reptiles known as Rhynchocephalians (the modern tuatara says hi!), and Pantydraco made up less than 2% of the remaining lot.
The islands probably couldn’t sustain large animals, so anything over 1.5 metres (4.9 feet) long – which Pantydraco was – was pushing the limit. So it was big and rare, and the only other islander it needed to watch out for was the athletic-looking croc ancestor Terrestrisuchus.
What does this have to do with Welsh dragons?
Pantydraco‘s islands saw their share of fire – wildfires, that is. And it may or may not have scuffled with the other “big” lizard on the block. But that’s not it.
The legend goes that Celtic king Vortigern fancied himself a hillside castle, but was warned against it by a young boy – or Merlin – because of two dragons sleeping beneath it in an underground lake. Admittedly the “sleeping” part will be a bit of a leap.
As well as fires, the Pant-y-ffynnon islands were fond of flash thunderstorms. These had a habit of drowning and washing the smaller, younger animals down into the limestone cracks. In fact that’s the origin of Pantydraco’s second name, caducus, meaning “fallen”. At least it isn’t “dropped”.
Being swept away meant no predators or scavengers could mess with their remains, so they would have been able to “sleep the eternal sleep” while submerged underground. As for there being more than one “dragon”, Pantydraco‘s partial skeleton was cobbled together from several different youngsters. So how big would the adults have been?
Unfortunately I found conflicting information. London’s Natural History Museum lists Pantydraco as 3 metres (9.8 feet) long, but Keeble et al. and palaeontologist Professor Paul Barrett think the top end of the scale was 1.5 metres (4.9 feet). That’s not the only bone of contention.
Keeble et al. suggest that Pantydraco‘s small size wasn’t because it was a juvenile, but because it was island-flavoured. I’ve mentioned island dwarfism before, and Keeble et al. aren’t convinced that adult dinosaurs wouldn’t also be washed down the cracks during a flash flood.
But according to Galton and Kermack, Pantydraco has the usual teenage tells of a head too big for its neck, a short and high snout, fewer teeth, a slender form, and skull bones that weren’t entirely fused, among other things.
A teenager would have some rough years in high school if their name were embarrassing. But is it really that bad?
Personally, I don’t care about dinosaur names. You could call it “Dinosaurus” and I’d still think it was the best thing since sliced bread. But the palaeontologist who named Pantydraco, Dr. Adam Yates, got an unreasonable amount of flack for this, as well as having it placed on various “worst dinosaur name” lists, because those are apparently a thing.
In his defence, he wanted to call it Cambrambulus – “Welsh wanderer” – but his co-author Dr. Peter Galton had already put forward Pantydraco, and he wasn’t about to fight it.
If that doesn’t sound like much of a defence, how’s this: you don’t even pronounce the “Pant-y-“ in Pant-y-ffynnon that way. It actually sounds like “Pant-uh”. So more like “panter dragon”, which is a longer walk to anything rude or amusing. But just like “real” dragons, it might not exist after all.
Typically, the very day I started writing this post, a new study was published claiming that Pantydraco might just be a juvenile Thecodontosaurus, the bucket it was originally slung into. So we’d be back to square one. What makes it even more typical was that I was the actual, specific person who pressed the “publish” button.
In any case, Thecodontosaurus was the first sauropod ever named and the fourth dinosaur ever recorded, so that’s a pretty sweet pedigree even if Pantydraco gets re-absorbed again.
See, I told you it was nothing to laugh at. And now it might disappear, forever this time, never to be seen or heard of again.
Now who feels embarrassed?
Pantydraco is a 205 million year-old two-legged, long-necked dino named after the Welsh “valley of the spring” where it was discovered, so it’s pronounced “pant-uh”, not “panty!” We’re not sure if it’s just a young Thecodontosaurus, so like real Welsh dragons, it might not exist after all.
Name: Pantydraco caducus – “Fallen dragon of the valley of the spring” – pronounced “pant-uh”, by the way.
Where? South Wales, 205-201 million years ago during the Triassic period.
How big? I found measurements from 1.5-3 metres / 4.9-9.8 feet long, possibly because the bones we have are from juveniles.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Ballell, Antonio, Emily J. Rayfield & Michael J. Benton. 2020. “Osteological redescription of the Late Triassic sauropodomorph dinosaur Thecodontosaurus antiquus based on new material from Tytherington, southwestern England“, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2020.1770774
Barrett, Paul. No date. “Five British dinosaurs you’ve (probably) never heard of“. Discover Wildlife.
“Dinosaurs: Carmarthenshire was Jurassic ‘hotspot’“. 2013. BBC News.
Galton, Peter, Yates, Adam, and Kermack, Diane. 2007. “Pantydraco n. gen. for Thecodontosaurus caducus YATES, 2003, a basal sauropodomorph dinosaur from the Upper Triassic or Lower Jurassic of South Wales, UK“. Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie – Abhandlungen. 243. 119-125. 10.1127/0077-7749/2007/0243-0119.
Galton, Peter & Kermack, Diane. 2010. “The anatomy of Pantydraco caducus, a very basal sauropodomorph dinosaur from the Rhaetian (Upper Triassic) of South Wales UK“. Revue de Paleobiologie. 29. 341-404.
Keeble, Emily, Whiteside, David I., and Benton, Michael J. 2017. “The terrestrial fauna of the Late Triassic Pant-y-ffynnon Quarry fissures,
South Wales, UK and a new species of Clevosaurus (Lepidosauria:
Rhynchocephalia)“. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 129:99-119.
Molina-Pérez, Rubén, and Larramendi, Asier. 2020. “Dinosaur facts and figures. The sauropods and other sauropodomorphs“. Princeton University Press.
“Pantydraco“. No date. Natural History Museum.
“Thecodontosaurus“. No date. Natural History Museum.
“The Welsh Dragon“. No date. Visit Wales.
Yates, Adam. 2008. “Defending the indefensible“. Dracovenator.
Featured image credit: Pantydraco caducus by Dinostavros, via DeviantArt.