We know them as winged lizards that looked much like pterosaur dinosaurs. In modern myth, they breath fire, carry riders, have an impenetrable armored skin, and sometimes speak.
Perhaps the most universal of all mythological creatures, it crosses many cultures, many languages, and quite a few continents. Even Inuit tribes with no possible reptiles in their environment carved images of dragons. The European dragons were large egg-laying reptiles with wings. The Chinese dragons were more serpentine in nature.
In many cultures, the dragons were said to live underground, which gives rise to the theory that dragons were an attempt at explaining dinosaur bones. Indeed, a woolly rhinoceros skull was displayed for many years as a dragon skull and Carolus Linnaeus was once asked his opinion on a dragon skeleton, which he debunked as a hoax constructed of prehistoric bones. But what else is a dinosaur if not a dragon? There’s not a lot of difference between what our ancestors imagined as dragons and what dinosaurs probably looked like.
Carl Sagan wrote that dragons may symbolize our innate mammalian fear of reptiles that evolved from the earliest mammals who fought to survive in a world of thunder lizards. Indeed, if we are to look for a reason why the old testament features a reptile as the evil deceiver it may be from this ancient fear. Sure, we’ve done a lot of evolving since the days when dinosaurs ate our ancient relatives, but perhaps a remnant of biological fear remains. It’s been noted that chimpanzees who have never encountered a snake are instantly fearful and agressive when introduced to them.
I think that different cultures may be creating the myths of dragons for different intellectual reasons. It’s hard to say why dragons were imagined, but an answer may lie within the myth. As I said before, dragons of myth lived underground and were perhaps the best explanation for dinosaur bones. Previous to Darwin, very few people believed that animals could go extinct. If you held such a belief, finding a giant bone would be perplexing. It’s not much of a leap to imagine what kind of creatures must be roaming around to produce such bones.
There’s at least one ancient map that says “Here be Dragons” on the border. It’s thought that this was just a way to signify unknown dangers.
Thorny Devil – moloch horridus – This little Australian lizard is pretty cool. It’s covered with conical spines and ridges that can channel water from any part of the body to the mouth. It’s skin becomes a darker shade at night and a lighter desert camouflage during the day. It has a faux head made of spikes on it’s neck that it uses to trick predators.
Quetzalcoatlus – This North American pterosaur was one of the largest known flying animals. It had a long neck and no teeth. It probably walked on all fours and hunted for food like a stork. It likely didn’t fly much, but it soared when it did.
You also don’t want to miss the Leafy Sea Dragon. Check it out!