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Classification System
1-non-threatening, non-dangerous
2-mixed findings, though typically non-dangerous
3-dangerous when provoked/threatened, but generally not
4-mixed findings, though typically more dangerous than not
5-extremly dangerous. Avoid at all costs

Classification: 5, Dragon

Dragons: Dinosaurs or Ancient Instinct?

Dragons have been an integral part of many cultures for longer than anyone can remember. What makes us humans so fascinated and terrified by these incredible beasts? Was the idea of dragons inspired by stories of dinosaurs embellished with fire and horror? Or did they really exist?

First, let's make sure we're on the same page about what kind of dragons we're discussing. The focus of this post is what some have referred to as the European dragon. This is a giant, lizard-like creature with four legs (not a wyvern), one pair of large wings, and usually the ability to breathe fire. Old literature pretty much always represented this animal as a villain, and only in the last several decades has a dragon been sometimes represented as a good guy character.

So, could the European dragon be a dinosaur with wings? Or an ancient instinct that's been growing in us humans for generations?

Let's start with the dinosaur theory: Did the idea of dragons come from dinosaurs?

We know there were some dinosaurs with wings: pterosaurs such as pterodactyls, pteranodons, etc. But nothing that really resembles our image of the Smaug-like beast.

Perhaps the one that comes the closest to the European dragon ideal—at least size-wise—is Quetzalcoatlus northropi, the largest pterosaur ever found. It stood as tall as a giraffe and had a wingspan of thirty-six feet!

But where might the fire-breathing trait have originated if the idea of dragons did come from dinosaurs?

One particular type of dinosaur called Sarcosuchus, also known as the Super Croc, may have been able to breath fire, or at least something like it. We can see from skeletal remains that Sarcosuchus had a hollow place in the end of its nose. Paleontologists speculate that this hollow place may have been used to mix chemicals that could result in fire.

A great example of this phenomenon in real life is the bombardier beetle's unique defense mechanism. When startled, the beetle mixes two chemicals in its abdomen and shoots the combination out at a predator. The chemical mixture looks more like water than fire, but it is excreted at boiling temperature at over twenty miles per hour. Quite some firepower for a little bug! And the space in the nose of a Sarcosuchus is much bigger than the little space in the bombardier beetle's bum. This feature is one of the reasons Sarcosuchus has been named the primary candidate for the Leviathan creature described in the bible.

Likelihood? What do you think?

Here's another interesting theory:

In his book, An Instinct for Dragons, David E. Jones presents a fascinating theory. While I don't necessarily agree with the theory, it is way too interesting not to share and could spark some awesome ideas for world building.

Jones's theory begins with the unique safety protocol of the African vervet monkey. They have three main predators: pythons, eagles and panthers. And for each of these dangers, they have a distinct distress call. When a vervet notices one of those predators is near, it will sound the alarm and the rest of the group will join in perpetuating the sound.

Based on which distinct call is made, they all know where to go. If it's an alert for an eagle, they know to go further down in the trees where an eagle can't fly. If it's an alarm for a panther or a python, they know to head for the highest branches where those heavier predators can't reach.

What does this have to do with dragons?

If you take a look at a lot of ancient depictions of dragon-like creatures, you can see certain elements occurring consistently. Many have the back feet of a large cat, and the front feet of an eagle, plus or minus wings. They also usually have a tail, and frequently a serpentine face. Have you ever looked closely at the Chinese dragon? It's actually not based on a lizard at all, but a mix of several different animals, each representing some valued quality.

So, say that our interest in and fear of dragons isn't based on dinosaurs, but on a prehistoric instinct to fear those three main predators—or a blended version of all three predators in one?

Jones proposes that as humans evolved from a prehistoric form, we evolved with the fear of those three main predators, and as time went on, they became a single monster in our minds that we now fear due to our ancestry.

Personally, I am a believer in creation rather than evolution, but I am highly intrigued by this idea. There are a lot of interesting things a writer could do with it to develop a world and civilization.

So, what do you think? Did our fear and curiosity about dragons come from dinosaurs, primordial instinct, or something else altogether?

Delve into more dragon lore in the Souls & Shadows Box Set:

YA fantasy novelist and professional dragon wrangler, Savannah J. Goins, fell in love with the genre through C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia many years ago. Since then, it's been nothing but dragons, sword fights and talking animals.

She spends her days in veterinary care working with real animals, and her nights giving voices to the ones in her stories. She also enjoys sketching, drinking tea and coffee, and discovering new bookshops.

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