[Updated 6/24/18: A few corrections due to outdated information on Pterosaurs brought to my attention by a reader]
One of the most common ideas across human history has been the idea of the dragon. Their appearance, personality, and origins change wildly from one culture to the next, but they as an entity always seem to exist. There are dragons from Europe, Asia and Central America. People have equated several serpent deities to dragons over time. And sometimes, we end up finding creatures that make us stop and think, “yeah, ok, that could be a dragon.”
But how likely would it be for something like that to actually exist in the world we know? When I was younger I watched several small documentaries about the idea of dragons being able to exist in our world and they all approached it with the general idea of how an exact kind of dragon would be able to get beyond physical limitations. The premise is somewhat sound but it comes at it a bit unscientifically. Too often we fall into the old habits of apologetics where we try to bend science to match our personal vision rather than the other way around.
What would happen to dragons if we approached it the other direction?
Whenever we deal with the idea of dragons we tend to fall into two camps in the modern day: apologetics and “fuck it”. Apologetics, for those unfamiliar with the term, is when you try to take a mystical belief and then explain it with science so that it can be the same way you envisioned it but still somehow mesh with the real world. When someone tries to explain to you that Noah’s flood could have happened if all of the water was then evaporated into space or sucked into the Earth’s mantle – that’s apologetics. But the other end of the spectrum is what just goes “fuck it”.
Fuck it tends to go something like this: “Dragons couldn’t possibly overwhelm modern military equipment but that’s our premise? Fuck it.”
“No other animal knows how to speak human languages in our world, but we can totally cast Sean Connery in this role? Fuck it.”
This is fine for magical worlds like what you’d find in Dragonheart, but not so much in more practical appearing worlds like Reign of Fire. The reason is simple – magical things don’t mesh well with a non-magical world. It’s not that we don’t want to believe dragons could be a thing in the real world, it’s just that we know they couldn’t be that way in our world because if they were we would have seen something already. And, sadly, dragons have a few problems that keep them from working in our world.
There are quite a few problems with the idea of blending dragons into an urban fantasy environment that looks like our every day world. The most obvious is that we’ve never seen them. But four key problems really stand out and we often have any attempt to put science into dragons being an exercise in apologetics for these four details: size, flight, intelligence and breathing fire.
The thing is, these details are big ones and it’s hard to wrap our heads around these creatures existing in a semi-realistic world without being able to say “magic did it”. And, frankly, the numbers show it. Dragonheart, while not a huge success, was still well liked by audiences and got multiple direct to video sequels. Reign of Fire on the other hand… not so much.
So, where do we start with dragons existing in the real world without handwaving?
This is the easiest one to mark off the list because it’s not really a problem for a lot of people. We know, for a fact, that giant reptilian creatures can and have existed in this world. The idea of dinosaurs has become ingrained into us and has made this almost a non-issue. But to a point it’s still a bit of an issue for us because giant carnivores went out of existence a very long time ago and it’s still hard for us to compute the idea of a carnivore being larger than the ones we have today with various species of bear being the largest land carnivores on the planet right now.
The truly gigantic dragons are unlikely at first glance. Animals have a certain limit of size that has to be considered when on land. Noticeably, while mammals are capable of reaching several tons, the largest mammals are all marine-based where they don’t need their skeleton to support the entirety of their weight. That’s not to say it would be impossible, but if we’re dealing with a carnivore it would be very unlikely. One of the largest land animals to exist (that we can make a good guess on the weight of) was the herbivore Dreadnoughtus which, at 85 feet long, was actually roughly the size of Smaug in Tolkien’s original descriptions.
So that’s already a bit of a stretch of our ability to believe, but not one that we can’t get beyond. No, the one that tends to be a sticking point is the idea that dragons could be as mobile as we picture them to be. The typical dragon is able to fly in the mythology, an ability that tends to be rooted in magic. But we have a hard time picturing something that large being able to haul ass or get off the ground effectively while the myths say they’re going to scramble around and be able to take off flying.
Is it possible? Well, clearly the best examples we have to figure this would be the dinosaurs previously mentioned. Our largest carnivores at the moment tend to be a little over a thousand pounds, but in the past we’ve seen mammals reaching a full ton, or about 2/3rds the weight of a modern day Hippo. Neither one of these is exactly a spectacular figure…but the T-Rex? 9 Tons.
Clearly, it’s possible for giant carnivores to exist and be able to catch prey. Though there are debates as to whether or not the T-Rex was a hunter or a scavenger, it wasn’t the only megacarnivore to exist millions of years ago and all of them had to be able to catch what they were chasing. So we can go ahead and assume that dragons could at least run. But flight?
The largest known pterosaurs in history range somewhere to the tune of a 33 to 36 foot wingspan. These things were huge and looking even at the estimates of the Quetzalcoatlus size gives you some idea that -maybe- dragons might be able to fly.
The problem is that the Quetzalcoatlus weighed about as much as a very large human or a moderately sized land predator. Despite all that wingspan they didn’t have the ability to keep much more mass aloft and, even being relatively light for their size, for a long time it was believed they couldn’t even really “fly” as we imagine it. Many believed that no Pterosaur ever had true flight and instead could only glide. So, primarily because of their size, for years there was considerable debate that nothing had achieved true flight until much smaller creatures like the Dinosaur Archaeopteryx developed the ability (and the first flight feathers, making them a transition between Dinosaurs and modern birds).[6/24/18: A correction brought to my attention by a reader. Originally I stated that Pterosaurs weren’t capable of flight. However, Pterosaurs were capable of true flight according to the current consensus. I was working off old information at the time I wrote this 3 years ago. Also, for the sake of clarity, when I say “very large human” I am referring to guys like this:
Who are, thankfully, also incapable of flight.]
Soooo, how exactly do you resolve that issue?
The first uncomfortable change that would have to be made to bring dragons in line with science rather than vice-versa is that we would have to start making them more wing than dragon. Rather than a pair of wings attached to the back of a lizard, we would have to start leaning them more towards creatures which evolved specifically for flight by making the wing a larger percentage of their body and foregoing the front legs in favor of reducing weight with relatively unnecessary limbs. This concept actually exists already in a related creature called the Wyvern.
Wyverns were essentially dragons that had only two legs and a pair of wings. They’re not often our depiction of choice because they’re not the thing that has been branded into our brains. But if we’re to start leaning towards something more likely to exist in a scientific world, that would be it. With the higher ratio of wing to body, the dragon may be able to overcome its size and be able to be that agile creature we’ve got in our mind. Just, one other thing, they still probably wouldn’t be able to fly without a specific enhancement.
The sternum would be pronounced on anything capable of actual flight. Birds and bats both possess a large blade-like projection from their sternum for their chest muscles to attach to allow for the strength required to both keep the wings steady and flap them to gain altitude. If our scientifically accurate dragon were actually capable of flight and not just gliding, it would have to have this adaptation as well to be able to carry its massive weight. This would mean the chest of a dragon would be incredibly developed and extremely powerful. Combined with other natural adaptations that birds have developed and there’s a chance that a wyvern-style dragon could fly despite its size.
But, even with the physical out of the way, we have to ask how likely the rest would be…
Often, in the mythology, dragons are among the most intelligent creatures in the world. They are often said to possess great wisdom, be able to communicate with humans, and be more cunning than most creatures. In some instances they are believed to be incredibly knowledgeable in magic or possess psychic abilities. But that would raise the question – why haven’t they taken over the world already?
A lot of stories try to work around this by making them incredibly rare to the point of near extinction or in a hibernation period that lasts eons. Neither of these makes a whole lot of sense when poked at long enough if they’re both so impressively powerful and intelligent at the same time. A creature capable of flying and tearing smaller animals apart combined with keen intelligence would be the apex predator long before we would be. So you have to come to the next point of uncomfortable adjustments.
Maybe they’re just really smart for an animal.
Not to say that they should be stupid, but not smart enough to be fully capable of mastering human speech. If we’re going to look at the possibility that dragons are a thing that could exist in our world we would have to be able to understand why they aren’t the thing in charge. Our complexity gave us the ability to dominate this world and clearly dragons with heightened intelligence would be more complex than we are. Even if their population growth is amazingly slow compared to ours, they would only have to organize against us once.
Instead, it would be reasonable to expect that they could be intelligent but not necessarily on equal or greater level than we are. We’ve seen cunning predators before and, given the fact we’re seeing them relate to dinosaurs and birds in a lot of the physiology that would make sense of them, we’ve seen birds of fairly high intelligence too.
So, if we were to figure that these dragons were to have taken some similar evolutionary steps as birds, it would make sense to say that the smartest of them could be compared to crows. Anything more significant than that and we would have to ask ourselves how we managed to come out ahead of these creatures, especially if we keep the most ridiculous of their traits…
The part that is the most fantastic of all is the idea that a creature could breathe fire. Despite the wonders of evolution, there has been no creature on Earth that could spontaneously produce a flame from just the things in its body. However, that’s not the only method of attack dragons have had in the various incarnations over the years and some of the alternatives are a lot more likely.
Quite a few creatures in the natural world have something similar to the common idea of “breath weapons”. It is incredibly common for venom, chemicals, or even acid to be spit by animals in the wild – especially reptiles. In fact, if we were to give a breath weapon to our “realistic” dragon, it would likely originate from glands similar to those found in several species of snake, the venom sacs located under and behind the eyes and usually resulting in a slightly different skull that creates the distinctive arrow-head shape vipers tend to have.
So, structurally, our realistic dragons would be considerably different than the old interpretation to accommodate traits like the chemical glands in its skull and the flight alterations from before. But one would have to ask, just for curiosity’s sake – is it possible that fire could happen?
Well, strangely, yes.
The point of this is not to go into apologetics where we bend science to fit the mythology. But, as with all the other cases, the idea is to take something that actually exists in nature and then apply that to the general idea of dragons. While a giant flying beast wouldn’t look like the creature of legend, in a strange way the weirdest aspect is, while rare, completely plausible.
Infamously, the Bombardier Beetle has the ability to produce searing hot chemicals from its rear that it can fire at predators with ease. These chemicals heat to nearly 100 degrees Celsius, evaporating a percentage of them rapidly, and then shoot out in an explosion. While not an actual flame, the very fact it adapted to be able to create an exothermic chemical reaction within its body suggests that you could have almost any chemical reaction happen inside a biological creature with the right adaptations.
In fact, the only thing that prevents the Bombardier Beetle from being destroyed by its own reaction is the fact its body immediately slams closed the valves in the process of releasing the chemicals. Without this defense, the reaction would get out of control and kill the beetle itself as it’s trying to defend itself.
So, in conclusion, if one were to try to depict a dragon “realistically”, it would have a lot of biological quirks and limitations not found in legend. First, it would be very unlikely for it to reach the size of something such as Smaug. If it did get that large, it wouldn’t be very capable of flight. For it to be able to fly it would probably have to look more like a Wyvern and have a very pronounced chest. And, while possible, breathing fire would require…
Some truly fantastic adaptation.