Dragons, as a whole, are too much for a single Monster of the Week post. As creatures of the unatural world, they're simply too numerous and varied. There's the cosmic dragon Ahi of Vedic mythology, the blue Qing Long dragon of China and the face-eating dragons of European tradition, just to name a few.
We'll likely return to some of these other dragons in the months ahead, but for now let us consider the fire-breathing dragons of Hellenistic, Western and fantasy tradition.
Masters of Fire
Every monster is a symbol and there's much to decode in the symbol of the mighty dragon. Their size and flying ability alone make them near godlike, especially when combined with very human doses of greed and wrath. But their mastery of fire also mirrors humanity, as humans are of course the only natural-world organism capable of creating and using fire.
As explained in "Why Fire Makes Us Human," mastery of the flame allows us to break free from the constrains of our body's energy budget and expand into hostile environments.
But it goes beyond that. According to Harvard biologist Richard Wrangham, our externalized digestion via cooked food made it possible for the evolution of the human brain.
Culture, language, mathematics... it all stems from this Promethean fire.
And here is the dragon, whose mastery of fire surpasses even our own. We claimed the flickering flame, but for the dragon it is birthright. They alone dance with fire without suffering burns. The reflect what, in the darkest corners of our hearts, what we most wish to become.
The Science of Fire Breathing
As humans are the only fire-enhanced creatures of the natural world, there's nothing in the animal kingdom to perfectly replicate the dragon's fiery breathe.
However, as pointed out at both Scientific American and Discover Magazine, we do have examples of projectile spewing organisms -- and what is a dragon's breathe of fire other than the ejection of a flammable projectile?
The best example is the bombardier beetle. These tiny insects evolved to squirt an explosive stream of heated venom from their abdomen. How? I'm glad you asked, because I've written about it before...
In theory, fire-breathing dragons must work in a similar way. According to paleontologist Henry Gee, dragons might biologically synthesize diethyl ether. Here's his quote from the Discover Magazine piece:
As the dragon spews this chemical cocktail, all it has to do is generate a spark to light the flame. As Kyle Hill suggests in his Scientific American piece, this might be achieved by mineral coatings on the teeth or ingested rocks and stones in the beast's gizzard.
Fire in the Heart
But of course this organic theory doesn't cover interpretations in which an eternal flame burns in the monster's gut. I have to admit that such a fantastic anatomy appeals to me even more, but such a physiology is far too supernatural (or at least alien) for consideration here. Still, plenty of organisms evolved to cope with cyclical wild fires and thermophiles continue to change our understanding of life itself.
Perhaps the notion of fire-centered organic life isn't that crazy after all.
So there you have it! If you find studies of this nature interesting, be sure to check out The Monster Gallery as well as our upcoming Monster Science video series. Here's a taste...
Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend.