I know. Not terribly imaginative. I introduce this bit of ancient history primarily to explain how I came to spend so many hours thinking about creatures that didn’t exist, and wondering if they ever could exist. Could there be a dragon lurking somewhere in a jungle, waiting to be discovered? Or, could a dragon evolve from an existing animal, if not through artificial selection, then by the careful manipulation of genes? Back in the mid-eighties, the scientific world was abuzz with discussion of the genetic code, and it seemed like any day we would learn to rewrite DNA and make our own monsters… within limits.
After college, I made up for some of the education I’d lost to D&D by reading a lot of non-fiction. I loved the writings of Stephen J. Gould, a biologist who explained genetics and evolution in terms even I could understand. One lesson I carried away from his writings is how constrained evolution can be. Who your ancestors are sets limits on what you (as an organism) can become. For instance, vertebrate life, since it crawled out of the seas, has been limited to creatures with four limbs. These limbs can turn into an amazing number of things—arms and legs and wings and flippers—but, for hundreds of millions of years, four’s been the limit, because whatever first crawled out of the sea all those years ago had four limbs, and all birds, reptiles, and mammals descend from it. Once you tune into this fact, it’s easy to wander through a zoo and see how everything is connected. You can look at a bat wing and see the same bones you find in a chimp's hand, stretched and distorted and with a different set of pulleys, but still, under it all, the same shared framework.
Unfortunately, the four-limb rule was bad news for the dragon that sat atop that pile of gold on the D&D box set. It had six limbs—four legs, two wings. Also, let’s face it… the typical fantasy dragon just wasn’t terribly aerodynamic. It was pot-bellied and had kind of stubby wings. The only way they could get off the ground was in a magical world, unbound by the laws of physics we operate by on Earth.
The challenge to my imagination became to design a creature that would be instantly recognizable as a dragon without requiring any new rules of biology or physics.
Here are the assumptions I made:
- My dragons would have two legs and two wings, like birds and bats. Birds and bats use the bones that make up the fingers of our hands to form wings. I wanted my dragons to have hands as well. So, a thumb and two fingers would be devoted to a clasping hand, and the remaining two fingers would become wing struts. (See figure 1.)
- My dragons wouldn’t breathe fire. Yeah, I can think of some scenarios where this is vaguely plausible, but earth to date hasn’t evolved any fire breathers and I don’t think it will any time soon. Acid and poison spitters, sure. But, fire’s a no no.
- A tiny dragon isn’t much fun. I wanted these beasts to be big. Unfortunately, flight seems to favor the small. Still, there have been some big flying creatures in the past. The biggest I could find was the Quetzalcoatlus. It had a forty foot wingspan. This gave me my upper limit on size. I have evidence that creatures this big can fly here on Earth.
- Just why were dragons always sitting on top of piles of gold? Seriously, what did they need it for? It wasn’t as if they were going to go down to the town square and buy melons in the market. Or, could they? Accumulation of wealth implies a societal structure… money has meaning only in the context of civilization. So, why couldn’t dragons be civilized? If you’re smart enough to know the value of money, you are smart enough to know the advantages of working together, using tools, etc. Dragons are also traditionally portrayed as being able to talk, and in our world, talking leads to culture. This meant my dragons probably had mythologies about their history and strong ideas about their place in the world--ideas that might be in stark contrast with other talking creatures, like humans.
With these as my guidelines, I started imagining a dragon that was something between a bird and a lizard. Fortunately, the fossil record has a couple examples of just such creatures, the most famous being Archaeopteryx. Archaepteryx wasn't very big but if you supersize him and make him a little scalier, you get a pretty passable dragon. Throw in "hands" in the middle of the wings and you're pretty close to the sort of winged dragons that haunt the world of Bitterwood. (Figure 2) In Bitterwood, if frequently refer to "fore-talons" and "hind-talons." These are the draconian equivilents of hands and feet. However, dragon hind-talons are much more dexterous than our feet, since they use them to carry weapons, live-stock, virgins, etc. when they fly.
As long as we're looking at pictures, at Ravencon a few months back, I ran into an artist named Christina Yoder who had a fantastic sketch of something she called a "parragon" in her portfolio. (Figure 3). I was excited when I saw this picture. It's obvious Christina has studied anatomy, and I found this sketch to be a very plausible interpretation of a dragon. She tells me she's drawn the details from her pet parrot and from bats that flit around where she lives. It's not hard to imagine this creature in the real world, if not today, then in the past, sharing space in the sky with Archaopteryx.
Finally, the ever-talented Mr. Cavin sent me this collage of a dragon, taking quite literally my wishes to show the underlying biology of the beasts. (Figure 4.) The thing I love about this picture is that it's easy to look at the dragon's face and see its shared genetic heritage with a chicken. Should you ever find yourself confronting a dragon with a forty foot wingspan, a useful tactic might be to shake your fists at it while shouting, "You don't scare me, you big chicken!" It's still going to kill you, of course, but at least you'll impress your friends with your knowledge of anatomy. "He was smart," they'll say. "Shame he got eaten."