Here be Dragons: Mythical Beast or Historical Monster?



We are all at least vaguely familiar with the story of the patron saint of England, St George, and the Dragon. St George, travelling through a new land, found that it was ravaged and under the bane of an enormous dragon. Finding the king’s daughter about to be offered as a sacrifice to the dragon, St George stepped in and - after a long and arduous battle - smote down the dragon, freeing the country from tyranny and terror once and for all.

Most people, whilst enjoying the tale of St George and the Dragon, think nothing more of it then as a legend to celebrate the patron saint of England. Yet dragons have lived on in our mythology, from modern iterations such as Smaug in Tokien’s The Hobbit and the dragons of Daenerys Targaeran in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, to ancient tales of dragons dating back hundreds if not thousands of years. Is it possible that Dragons ever once existed and if so, would they really reflect our own interpretations of them?

The idea that large reptiles ever once existed can be confirmed by the existence of dinosaurs, whose fossils many experts believe may have played a part in inspiring many dragon tales. Others believe that reptiles such as alligators and snakes may have played a part in shaping the mythology behind them. Whatever inspired legends of dragons, it leaves us with a big question: could they have actually existed?

Perhaps the most distinguishable feature of dragons is their ability to breathe fire. Whilst it may at first seem far-fetched to suggest, it is feasible, science (and indeed nature) has shown us that it is at least theoretically possible. A type of beetle, the bombardier beetle, carries out what’s known as a hypergolic reaction, in which two liquids (in this case hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide) react violently together when mixed, resulting in a massive burst of heat in the form of a flame. Hypothetically, a dragon could perhaps utilise two such chemicals to carry out its own hypergolic reaction, aiming the resulting fire out of its mouth.

Perhaps the more realistic way in which fire could be produced would be via the combustion of a highly flammable gas, such as methane. The bacteria in your gut produce methane naturally, and as we all know, dragons like to eat a lot of food – so they could produce a lot of wind! Methane could also help dragons fly as it isn’t very dense, so could act as a buoyancy aid for any large dragon-like creature. However, as methane is extremely flammable, it may not be a particularly safe bet!

Once we have fire, we would also need a spark. A couple of interesting theories have been put forward as to how this might be achieved. One suggestion is that like modern birds, dragons could ingest rocks, which over time would lead to the dragon’s teeth being coated in minerals. Quickly biting down on this minerals would produce a spark – which may be why dragons can produce fire so quickly. Alternatively, their teeth may have what is known as piezoelectric properties, which means that stress applied to the teeth would produce an electric spark that could ignite the fuel source.

Of course, even if dragons had the ability to breathe fire, one major problem still remains – their size. Notably, most accounts of dragons describe them as colossal creatures, tens if not hundreds of feet long. Whilst no creatures capable of flight that large exist today, a collection of flying reptiles called pterosaurs existed at the same time as the dinosaurs, some 65-200 million years ago. The largest of these animals, Hatzegopteryx, had a wingspan of 11 metres. But could dragons have been even bigger? One way around this would be to take steps to reduce weight, something birds and crocodiles do. This could include evolutionary features like hollow bones, as well as a system of air-sacs filled with a lightweight gas (possibly methane), which would allow the dragon to effectively ‘glide’ through the air. Now obviously crocodiles can’t fly; they instead utilise their air-sac system to regulate their buoyancy in water.

Whatever theories may exist, without any evidence in the form of fossil remains we must conclude (for the meantime) that dragons never existed. Of course, we won’t let that stop us from enjoying the mythology that surrounds them. And if you ever get asked on a long and dangerous quest by a strange, bearded wizard with a pointy hat, the best thing to do is run away!

Happy St. George’s Day!

#Biology #General #StGeorgesDay #JonathanJames

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