I recently saw the film ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ and was very excited at the prospect of seeing Smaug the dragon, a character I loved reading when I was younger. After writing a post on how Star Trek technology is not so science ‘fiction’ as it was when it was written, I began to think if dragons are creatures of ‘fantasy’.
Obviously, if there were dragons somewhere in the world we would know about it but the fact is many different cultures from around the world have described the dragon in one form or another without coming into direct contact with each other.
A fascinating New York Times article explains:
“Dragon images have been found on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, on scrolls from China, in Egyptian hieroglyphs and Ethiopian sketches, on the prows of Viking ships, in bas relief on Aztec temples, on cliffs above the Mississippi River and even on bones carved by Inuits in climates where no reptile could live.”
Bearing this in mind, it is not outside the realm of possibility that dragons are/were a reality. They are usually depicted as magic creatures in modern literature but if you think about it, there is no aspect of dragons that cannot be explained by science. I’m not saying dragons did exist but there is no reason that they couldn’t have existed.
The quintessential dragon trait is fire breathing. A store of fire in the belly is highly unlikely as it would cook the meaty muscle of the dragon but there are two means of fire production that stand out as genuine possibilities. The first being the combustion of methane gas, a by-product of digestion. Many animals today are known for producing large quantities of methane gas. Most notably cattle have gotten a bad name for producing vast amounts of the gas, which is driving on the greenhouse effect.
Whereas cattle release methane as an unwanted nuisance, dragons may be able to store it in some sort of third lung or bladder-type organ. The body is already adept at transporting gas around the body, so if the blood was modified to carry methane gas from the intestines to a storage organ, much like it carries oxygen from the lungs, the fuel for the fire is sorted.
It could then force a flow of the gas through the nostrils or mouth. A spark would be needed to ignite the gas. This may be achieved by either grinding particularly hard teeth like a flint or, more likely, by producing an electric charge much like an electric eel. Thus we have all the requirements to make fire. Presumably there would be a valve type feature to prevent burning methane from being drawn back into the body and blowing the whole gas store.
The second means of creating fire is to mix two chemical solutions together which then react violently with each other and spontaneously combust, i.e. burst into flame without an ignition spark. A possible combination would be a hydrocarbon solution mixing with a strong oxidizing agent. Reactions such as this are used in rocket propulsion.
A similar action is used by the bombardier beetle, which squirts a combination of chemicals producing high levels of heat.
A small alteration to the chemical mix of the bombardier beetle could plausibly produce a combustible mixture. Picture a method similar to the spitting cobra but with each tooth releasing streams of different chemicals which collide mid air and burst into flame. Or a different mixtures being expelled from each nostril.
As regards to the flight of dragons, most depictions of the creatures show a large rounded body with bat-like wings. These look to be as aerodynamic as my foot, surely incapable of flight. But it is important to remember that giant reptilians are well known to be capable of flight, just think of the pterodactyls of Jurassic Park. Furthermore, the Chinese description of dragons rarely include wings – picture the snake-like costumes often seen in Chinese holidays where many people dance around wearing a long narrow papier-maché type of dragon, without the wings.
There are some aspects of dragons that have been created specifically for dramatic effect in books/TV shows such as wisdom, the ability to speak or blood with magical properties but the core features of dragons are very much possible.
So there you have it. Why can’t dragons have existed? A lot of their defining features have already existed in one form or another.