Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Where be dragons?

Everyone loves dragons. Fictitious ones.  As Ben Radford notes here, there are some bits of fact mixed with the fun.  One comes from paleontology: bones of dinosaurs and giant prehistoric mammals were naturally ascribed to monsters, especially those already established in such sources as the Bible's Old Testament.  Another source is the exaggeration of real creatures, such as crocodiles.  Naming the world's largest lizard the Komodo dragon is a demonstration of the fascination we have with such creatures. (Douglas Adams wrote that his mind reeled when seeing one on display-  "...ten feet long and a yard high is entirely the wrong size for a lizard to be.") In modern fiction,  J.R.R. Tolkien gave us Smaug, plus occasional references to "worms" with names like Scatha and Ancalagon the Black.  Anne McCaffery gave us the Dragonflight books, and dragons appear in countless other stories (to cite one of the more obvious examples, see the Dungeons and Dragons games and  books).  In Chinese folklore, dragons were wise and snakelike: in European tales, they had batlike wings and died out at the hands of Saint George and his kind. (The European dragon, incidentally, is almost always drawn with unrealistically small wings for any living creature, compared to the body size: when Chinese dragons fly, they do it by magic and dispense with the whole business of wings.)
Real modern dragons? Well, without dinosaurs in the world (with apologies to some fellow cryptozoologists, we're not going to find live dinos of any sort in Africa or anywhere else), crocodiles and Komodos are the best we have.  And occasional "dragon photographs" circulated on the Net are beyond silly.  The sirrush, that odd dragonlike creature on Babylon's Ishtar gate, is interesting, though there's no reason to suppose it real. Maybe it, too, was born of the imaginative interpretation of dinosaur bones.  Modern studies of dinosaurs have given us creatures so fantastic that they outshine their make-believe counterparts. 
So we had dragons. We just came along too late to see them. 
P.S. In addition to a new book Ben mentions, Karl Shuker wrote a splendid dragon book.

9 comments:

Clark said...

The term dragon comes from an archaic general word for reptiles so it is not surprising there is a wide variety of fictional dragons. The Chinese dragon is often depicted like the parade dragon flexing up and down like a caterpillar. In the book, The Untold Story of Champ, many 19th century sightings are given that clearly describe this sort of multiple vertical flexure in the sea serpent. The skeptics would say it may be a line of seals or a fish run or even a flock of birds. As for a descendant of sauropods still living in Africa, from my theoretical vantage point I think they are likely. It is really more a dogma of Cuvier's that they cannot exist. Lazarus taxa continue to be discovered.

Clark said...

Many ordinary folk throughout the ages have described what they see in homely a clumsy ways. Lacking a word for mammals ancient people and modern illiterate people sometimes resort to descriptions such as "sea person" or mermaid for a sea mammal. The records also show they describe sea creatures flippers as wings sometimes.

Matt Bille said...

Clark, that's an excellent book on Champ - I'll be writing a review. Despite the account given by Ivan Sanderson of a creature much bigger than a hippo, I don't think we'll find dinosaurs. No region of the world was except from the destruction of the K-T impact and its aftermath, and Jacobs' book Quest for the African Dinosaurs makes it clear that, even though parts of Africa are similar to the habitats we picture for dinosaurs, this area is not a "lost world" where the tropical conditions were unchanged from the Mesozoic to the present. A huge monitor lizard just might turn up, though.

Clark said...

That reminds me of Sanderson's account of his alleged sighting of a pterosaur-like creature in Africa. It is obvious he was extravagantly describing a large bat. He knew it was not a pterosaur.

The book on Champ was written by the same Robert Bartholomew who wrote an excellent book on bigfoot in New York.

I am aware that the prehistoric survivor perspective in cryptozoology does not have a good reputation. Nevertheless, Karl Shuker's revised and updated edition of his Prehistoric Survivors is in the process of getting published. Lazarus taxa such as crocodiles still exist without the exact same tropical conditions. I am of the school that the K-T impact did not cause the extinctions. The extinctions were too gradual. Uniformitarianism will return in a wiser future.

Matt Bille said...

Prehistoric survivors can pop up: I think we'll find a few more. Finding gigantic terrestrial animals with no fossil record since the Mesozoic, though, just isn't going to happen.

Clark said...

You really are very averse to prehistoric survivors or lazarus taxa when they are all around us. You should not presume everyone into prehistoric survivors are watching those professor Challenger movies. Karl Shuker is a very reasonable student of possible prehistoric survivor cases. I think that the sauropod-like creatures reported are about the size of elephants and would not be at their largest. There is that picture of an alleged sauropod track in Mackal's book on Mokele-Mbembe (A Living Dinosaur page 321). It has three toes. There are many very long lacunas in the fossil record as with the coelacanth. At the time of the modern discovery of living coelacanths the most recent fossils were from 64 mya according to Shuker (In Search of Prehistoric Survivors page 12).

Matt Bille said...

Clark, you are right about the coelacanth and their being other Lazarus taxa. And we did, just a few years ago in Somalia, discover thousands of overlooked African elephants, so elephant-sized unknowns are possible. My personal opinion of what's probable - and I admit it is only that - is that anything discovered in the mokele-mbembe case is more likely to be a monitor lizard or other relative of known surviving reptiles. All the rediscovered taxa of the Mesozoic, with the sole exception of the coelacanth, have been tiny - neopilina, graptolites, remipedes etc.

Clark said...

As a uniformitarian I continue to think, along with Lyell, that the ichthyosaur will again frolic in the seas, evolving from something alive today, if it is not actually out there now.

Clark said...

Of course, Dollo's Law states that evolution cannot reverse direction. I am not sure what validity this still has since the science of genetics has developed. After all, there is the well known reversion to average as in experimental mutations of fruit flies and there are recessive genes. Obviously, when conditions permit the genes may be there and apt to survive again in the right environment. There is convergent evolution.