Here’s an excellent article at discovermagazine.com on the real science behind dragons. This story is timely due to the JRR Tolkien books and movie, The Hobbit, and one of the characters- a dragon- named Smaug. It’s also interesting because dragon legends are found in many cultures around the world, and it’s quite possible that these legends are based on real creatures that once existed and may have gone extinct.
Paleontologist Henry Gee explains why it’s worthwhile discussing dragons within the realm of science: “Science is not about the known, for that is boring… All science that is enjoyable and worthwhile, rather than routine or directed in pursuit of some unconnected goal, starts when a person of vision looks outwards beyond the wall of what is known and asks the question ‘What if?’”
The article discusses several real-life possibilities from modern-day creatures: The Bombardier beetle is able to synthesize a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone into a toxic and boiling hot liquid that it squirts at any threatening predator. The article comes up with some other possibilities of how a creature might be able to synthesize other biological compounds that it could ignite in the air. It’s also interesting that the writer uses pterosaurs to explain how dragons might have flown.
The Bible speaks of several creatures that could have spurred dragon legends. The books of Job, Psalms and Isaiah all mention the leviathan, which is described in detail. God describes the leviathan, saying, “Its snorting throws out flashes of light; its eyes are like the rays of dawn. Flames stream from its mouth; sparks of fire shoot out. Smoke pours from its nostrilsas from a boiling pot over burning reeds. Its breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from its mouth.” Its limbs are described with strength and grace; its body as a double coat of armor; its mouth ringed with fearsome teeth; its back as rows of shields tightly sealed so close together that no air can pass between. Strength resided in its neck, and its chest is hard as rock. The leviathan is no match for harpoons, swords, javelin, arrows, or clubs, and is without fear.
Likewise the behemoth is also described in Job 40. It has a tail that sways like a cedar, limbs that are like rods of iron, and ranks first among the works of God. Raging rivers don’t alarm it; it remains secure against surging waters. What I find fascinating about this description is that there’s a modern-day, legendary creature called the Mokele-mbembe that has been spotted in the Congo River basin. The name Mokele-mbembe means, “one who stops the flow of rivers”.
These descriptions not only describe something dragon-like, but also much like what we call dinosaurs. The word “dinosaur” wasn’t invented until Sir Richard Owens coined the term in 1842, thousands of years after such creatures were written about in the Bible.
Dragon legends are recorded in Saint George and the Dragon, the Flag of Wales, by Marco Polo, and the Chinese Zodiac. There are even books written to explore the link between dragon legends and dinosaurs.
Overall I’m very pleased that science is beginning to recognize that dragon legends may have been built upon living creatures that may have gone extinct.