There is probably not a person in the world you could talk to who doesn’t know what a dragon is. Most people can describe a dragon, and vividly so, therefore an interesting question arises: if dragons are a myth, why are they known to so many cultures?
Today we jokingly talk about dragons and relegate them to fairy tales and comic books, yet the widespread knowledge of these beasts points out that there may be more here than meets the eye. Stories of dragons were prevalent in Europe, and you can imagine the surprise that the first Europeans must have felt upon reaching China and discovering that dragons were not only known there, but revered as good luck symbols.
In modern society, we tend to think that the closest thing to dragons were the dinosaurs. Science tells us that dinosaurs became extinct some 65 million years ago when they were trampled during a stampede at a K-Mart Blue Light Sale, yet stories of dragons persist as recently as 300 years ago, bundled with white knights, castles, and wizards.
The modern idea of dragons was revived in the late 19th Century when Dr. Gideon Mantell and his young wife found fossilized bones in England. Mantell thought they looked familiar, but sent them to respected French biologist Baron Cuvier, who matched them with those of the much smaller iguana, and because the fossil was a jaw, named the animal Iguanodon, or “Iguana Tooth”. This also became the biggest mistake in the history of the natural sciences, namely to assume that Iguanodont and all subsequently-found dinosaurs were cold-blooded reptiles based on the similarity of a set of teeth. This idea was, and still is, as stupid as trying to put out a fire with gasoline.
Judging by the descriptions of dragons that permeate literature, it seems logical that these animals were contemporaries of the dinosaurs, or perhaps even mutations of dinos, possessing many of their features, such as claws, large fangs, scaly skin, long tails, and leathery wings. Dragons may also have been the last known surviving dinosaurs. If dinosaurs were (and this is rapidly becoming believed as truth) endothermic (generating their own heat from within and not “cold-blooded”), and dragons were related dinosaurian species, then these creatures of legend furnish us with proof of that endothermy—most of them were said to be capable of breathing fire. That may not seem like such a fantastic feat on the surface. In fact, I have an aunt who used to do that when my uncle would come home late, but an ectothermic creature could NEVER generate enough body heat to breathe fire or be able to fly.
The fire breathing itself isn’t overly hard to explain. Keep in mind that people who have come in contact with acid appear to have been burned at the contact point. What if dragons didn’t breathe fire but instead spat an acidic venom? To the scientifically challenged people of the Middle Ages the results were the same: burn marks on or virtually complete consumption of the body. There are various reptiles today capable of spitting venom. Spitting acid is not that far off the realm of possibility.
So, we have Europeans and their tales of castles and princesses associated with dragons, then we have the Asian cultures that also had dragons in their folklore and history. You may be tempted to pass that off as coincidence, but why is it then that when Europeans came to the New World, they discovered that native tribes there ALSO had stories of dragons, despite never having met either Caucasians or Asians?
Of particular interest is the legend of Quetzacoatl, which when translated into English means “feathered serpent”. A dragon or snake with feathers? Absolutely! We have known about feathered dinosaurs since the late 1800’s when Archeopteryx was found in Germany, its fossil clearly showing feather imprints, and further proof was found in China’s Liaoning Province, one of the new hotbeds of dinosaur finds, in 2000 as scientists unearthed the fossils of feathered velociraptors. In Texas, not that long ago, fossil remains of a feathered pterosaur with a 50-foot wingspan were found. It was so huge, and the impression of feathers so prominent, that it was named Quetzocoatl.
So, why are there no dragons flying around today, you ask? Even back in the Middle Ages, dragons were a dying breed. Most of them were reclusive to begin with, hiding in dark caves and venturing out only to eat, which is not conducive to procreation. Furthermore, they were being hunted down by the greatest hunting machine of all time, man, for the usual reasons—their heads made beautiful trophies, and wizards used their teeth, claws, and scales. Dragons were reputed to have long lives, so potions were made from parts of their bodies to assure extended life in humans while the claws and teeth were reputed to have magic powers of protection or destruction. This was used in the film “Jason And The Argonauts” when the teeth of the Hydra, a multi-headed dragon, brought dead warriors back to fight Jason and his crew.
Does hunting as a valid reason for the demise of dragons sound impossible? Before you say yes, think about the many animals that man hunted to extinction, such as the Dodo bird from the Island of Mauritius, which was decimated in just a few short decades after explorers from Europe settled on the island. It has now been suggested that humans hunted down all the large fauna in Australia thousands of years ago, and probably did the same in the Americas.
Maybe some day we will find an actual dragon fossil complete with wings and/or feathers, and when we do, science will have to rewrite a lot of books. Until then, dragons will remain in the realm of fantasy and fairy tales.