I’m taking part in a panel at Octocon. In fact, I’m doing several, but this is about one in particular. I find it’s handy to have mulled over the subjects a bit before I go discussing them. I found myself making notes for Fantasy Explained with Science! on the particular subject of Dragons.
I have many nieces and nephews and they always get science gifts from me for xmas, potato-powered clocks for example, this leads to me being asked questions of why is the sky blue variety on a regular basis.
I try to answer these questions with as much actual science as I can muster, though “how does Harry Potter’s wand work?” and the like will always be answered “with Magic”, because there has to be some left somewhere.
So I started with how fire breathing works for the beasts but being the writer type that I am, I swiftly came up with a slightly more detailed theory about dragons. So I thought I’d share my thoughts with you, because let’s face it, if there’s anywhere that someone is going point out the flaws in a theory it is the internet!
Let’s begin with my definition of a Dragon shall we?
A dragon is a large, scaled, lizard-like, winged creature (see image above) that breathes fire and has hostile encounters with man, like every other creature we have wiped out of existence.
If you’re not good with that you’ll probably want to stop reading because everything from here on is based on that, admittedly very western, definition of the beasts.
As to the origins of these craetures, winged dinosaurs existed so there’s no problem there, massive wingspans would have allowed them to glide a lot so less energy would have been required than you would think for beasts that size.
This is important as the potentially controversial part of my theory is this. Dragons were herbivores, a beast that size would have had to be to survive the Ice Age at all.
Dragons, in my theory, were leaf and berry eating vegetarian types, favouring trees of the genus Dracaena in particular.
The ability to feed above the canopy of the massive forests that covered the earth for most of its existence and chow down on the topmost leaves and fruits allowed them many advantages, no real competition for the food, out of reach of most predators and able to put a massive distance between themselves and potential threats quickly.
Large herbivores produce methane; cows are thought to be making a serious contribution to global warming due to the amount of it they produce. The process is called methane fermentation and if you’re of a mind to read some proper science about it go here.
Methane is also a lighter than air gas which would have aided flight and hover capabilities. I believe that dragons stored this methane in pockets beneath their skin, adding a layer of protection and giving them a store of gas to use when scaring off intruders on their territory or competing for a mate
Dragons would have had a larger number of stomachs than cows and the digestion process would have taken much longer. I theorise that dragons actually had a slow digestive process and had a sporadic feeding pattern.
They would fill up on tree food and fly off to their nearest perch on a mountain to safely digest their food out of reach of most predators, sheltering either in a cave or beneath an extruding cliff and repeat as needed.
I speculate that they may have had a territorial habit like some eagles do, claiming a broad swath of territory of their own and nesting. Venturing out of their territory only when forced to by natural disaster, lack of food or to hunt for a mate. Mating for life is probable too.
The famous fire breathing ability would have been used as a threat to predators and to impress potential mates. They would have expelled the gas from the pockets shunted it through their stomachs, rear one first, ignition would have been caused by the ambient temperature in the Dragons core.
Considering that the average human has a single tiny stomach and has an average core temperature of 37°C (98.6°F) it’s not a big leap to think the core of a significantly larger animal with many more stomachs would have a higher core temperature.
Methane doesn’t actual burn all that hot so it is unlikely to have caused much damage, if any at all as it passed through.
The mating display would probably have consisted of a display of flames, the bigger the flames the more gas and therefore the more food that Dragon could find.
I’m assuming what followed was the usual, mind the eggs, nurture the babies and run them off when they became old enough to fend for themselves cycle.
It can’t have been an annual thing however or we’d still have them today
So what happened to them?
The Ice Age would have taken a big chunk out of their numbers as it did for most species but they had the ability to fly long distances with a low level (for a giant flying lizard type) energy requirement. Most likely following herds to different Mammoth Steppes
There’s an image for you, a herd of mammoths thundering across the snowy plains as dragons whirl through the air above them.
As humanity expanded and agriculture began and vast swathes of forested land were cleared, the main food source of Dragons vanished.
Dragons were forced to come closer to human settlements or rather human settlements came closer to them leading to confrontations and more casualties.
Dracaena plants grow mainly along the equator which is where humanity expanded rapidly and civilisations started to grow. It’s from those civilisations we got the tales of dragons and in them you find that wherever humans met dragons, dragons died.
Forced to retreat further and further away from humanity, to cooler climes where their food of choice struggled to grow, they were soon starved out of existence even if they weren’t caught and killed by the ever expanding human race.
I know everyone would prefer some glorious end to the reign of dragons but as with hundreds of thousands of other species, humanity killed them off, not as a policy but simply as a side effect of our existence.