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The Science of Dragons



I have been slightly obsessed with dragons for a while. Here's the result.

Characteristics

Flight

The first thing we need to figure out is the size of our prototype dragon. If a full-sized dragon like Smaug existed, it wouldn't fly (due to the fact that it would weigh about 18 tonnes). The weight to wing ratio basically means the dragon would have to be hollow to fly, or else the gravitational pull on it would be too great for even the most massive wings. Instead of having a hollow dragon, let's shrink it down.
Say around the size of a falcon. Large birds like vultures have large surfaces for their wings and can therefore soar. Assuming we want our dragon to soar like an eagle, we could make it larger, but big birds need massive areas to land and take off, which is completely impractical if we are sticking to the stereotype of dragons living in caves. (More on habitat later). However we can't have the dragon flapping around like a little finch, so we might as well compensate, with average takeoff and landing area and average amount of flapping, with a wingspan of maybe 60cm.
To be able to fly, an animal has to have wings with a large surface, and stable enough to stretch out and support the animal's full weight without ripping. Birds have feathers that create a large surface and are lightweight. They also have tail feathers for further surface area for "steering" and flying. Bats use vast amounts of skin spread between elongated finger-like ridges. Pterodactyls could also fly. They, unlike bats, used only one elongated finger to stretch out the skin, and the other four to for crawling and climbing.


Now, Smaug, in the movies, had six fingers: three for stretching out his wing fabric, and three spikes at an elbow for mauling things. Three fingers is an option, or you could go with the more traditional four spokes holding the wings taught and a single curved spike as a thumb.
Finally, you know how Toothless in HTTYD has a kind of fan at the end of his tail? We definitely need that. Probably bigger. And like in HTTYD, it should be able to fold easily, to conserve space and stuff.
Oh yeah, and we need muscular hind legs for launching into the air. Those are important.
Also, just to clarify: our dragon walks on its folded up wings, similar to the way a bat walks. It doesn't have four legs. Their front legs would just be cumbersome in flight.

Interior Biology

Okay, so traditionally, dragons can talk. So we add vocal chords, for a start. And since they're quite small creatures, let's make them have squeaky voices. We also need to give it control of its lips, tongue and jaw, so it can enunciate all its syllables. Or, for more comedy, we could give it a lisp or something. As a fairly small creature, it would prey on mice and things that it sees in fields below it (we are making assumptions based on birds), so let's give it a large eye to head ratio. Which means less space for the brain, which actually needs to be quite large if it's as cunning as in most stories. So most of the head is taken up by eye sockets and brain. We could take the velociraptor as an example. The velociraptor could actually fly, and so had larger eyes. They were also very social dinosaurs, forming packs much like wolves. This means they had fairly large brains. Let's make our dragon head quite similar to the velociraptor's.
The fairly major question of fire breathing now appears. How do we get a dragon to breath fire without burning itself? Where would it store the chemicals? And how would they be digested? Let's take a look at real animals for some guidance.
We have the spitting cobra, which has a large venom gland fitted with compressor muscles, which squeeze it out of specialised fangs which have small holes in them.


Above is the bombardier beetle, which stores Hydrogen Peroxide and Hydroquinone in two separate areas in its body, and channels then into an explosion chamber where the reaction takes place between the two chemicals. Its sphincter muscles then force out the 100 C explosive gas.
We need to somehow reverse what the bombardier beetle's explosive gas thing, so it is expelled from the mouth instead. Let's add chemical glands in the throat area. And plants to the diet as they can be broken down into flammable gases such as methane. Our dragons are now omnivores.
So we have a cat-sized omnivorous reptile that breaths hydrogen peroxide and has a funny flap on the end of its tail. Not bad.

Distribution and Habitats

Reptiles live on every continent apart from Antarctica. However, they are particularly diverse in areas near the equator, especially South America, Central Africa and Southern Asia. And less in cold areas. So let's have our dragons populate similar regions. We could have different variations of species depending on the habitat, like an arboreal species in the rainforest that glides from tree to tree in search of fruit, or a species with webs between their hind feet that slides in and out of gloomy pools, snatching beetles out of the air as they buzz down to lay eggs or whatever else beetles do in the water. It's always been a mystery to me. I mean, you always see loads of bugs flying around ponds and streams and stuff.
Anyway, I digress. Let's just say that dragons are very adaptable and are found pretty much wherever any other reptile can live, due to the fact that they can fly and have excellent self defence strategies and have a wide diet and so on. Yeah.
I'd say dragons, being successful hunters (big teeth, fly, breath fire), would be fairly common. However most reptiles don't reproduce particularly quickly, so they wouldn't exactly overrun wherever they were. In addition, their eggs would be quite vulnerable if abandoned.

Social Behaviour

I had this cool idea that they could have chameleon-like scales. I mean, Stegosauri had color-changing spines, didn't they? Dragons could change color depending on mood, or to attract mates, or to warn off predators, or to hide. Am I going over the top or shall we roll with it?
Also, many birds and reptiles raise ruffs or feathers when angry or threatened. Let's have them to that with their spines.

How would dragons communicate with each other? We have established that they have massive brains and vocal chords. Would they speak human speech? Which language? Humans have so many different languages... Dragons would probably speak the same dialect as the people in their region. Again, they are very adaptable. Maybe we could even give them different accents. Which makes sense - parrots of the same species living in different areas develop different calls.
I would say that dragons might form packs, like the Velociraptors did. Many of the more intelligent animals (and even those that aren't) recognise that there is strength in numbers. It would be so cool to see a flock of dragons soaring high in the sky.
Pack structure depends on the temperament you decide to give your dragons. If they are quite power hungry I suggest giving them a very structured pack with a clear alpha, then a second in command and so on. Or they could just be a disorganised rabble under a vague source of authority (like the RainWings in Wings Of Fire by Tui T Sutherland, which I highly recommend, by the way).

Dragons and Humans

Because reptiles don't breed as rapidly as, say, rodents, they wouldn't overpopulate wherever they live. This means they are less likely to be seen as pests by humans. On the other hand, they do have big teeth and they breath fire. As well as the traditional kleptomania. Maybe they wouldn't exactly be welcome. Like snakes. Except they have wings, and set things on fire. I'm thinking possibly the relationship here wouldn't be great. Which is frankly disappointing.
I suppose certain people would hunt or even farm dragons for their skin and horns, like how people farm crocodiles and snakes for their hides.
As they have high brain capacity, I guess dragons could be quite good pets. Better if they had their fire breath glands removed and horns, teeth and so on blunted. If they had color changing scales, they'd be very popular. I personally think reptiles make awesome pets anyway, and a pet dragon would be beyond epic. It would be more of a friend than a pet, since it could talk. Even better than a parrot!

~Hannah~
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