Monster of the Week: The Fire-Breathing Dragon

Creatures of fire.. fotokostic/iStock

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.

Fire lord.

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...

"(They) produce hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), as well as substances called hydroquinones that are stored in a separate reservoir. When bombardier beetles sense danger, they release the H2O2 and hydroquinones into a special reaction chamber. Here, secreted enzymes break down the H2O2, releasing free oxygen to oxidate the hydroquinones. This chemical reaction generates enough heat to bring the entire mixture to a boiling point. With an explosive discharge of fluids, the bombardier beetle sprays its attacker..."

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:

"Yeasts and other organisms produce ethanol as a waste product, and there are bacteria that excrete sulfuric acid (they're responsible for corroding concrete). I could imagine a microbial community in which diethyl ether is made as a waste product and exploited by dragons to breathe fire."

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.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.