The Evolutionary Biology of Dragons

What if instead of accepting the notion of dragons as wholly fictitious creations of the imagination, we instead looked at them as an evolutionary biologist would? How do dragons fit into their biological niche and what purpose do their biological traits serve? Are dragons just evil or are their behaviors serving specific functions?

Defining dragons

There are many kinds of dragons from fiction. In order to not have to deal with the specific traits of each of these, I will be limiting the scope of this article to the Tolkienesque dragon. These dragons can be said to have the following traits:

  • Dragons grow to be very large perhaps as big as 100′ long and massing 15 -20 tons
  • They fly using powerful wings perhaps aided by magical properties that provide lift
  • Dragons have a tough scaly reptile-like hide
  • They breathe fire
  • Dragons are intelligent, cunning, and crafty
  • They are solitary creatures
  • Dragons horde wealth (particularly gold)

An evolutionary perspective

The first, most obvious, trait in dragonkind is that they are large. Largeness is not a trait that evolution selects against as long as it does not impact a creature’s ability to survive and reproduce. The dinosaurs were easily in the size range of dragons. In the case of dragons as apex predators, size provides them with advantages. They are able to travel great distances in a single day to find food and patrol their territory. Because of their size and build, few, if any, other creatures are in a position to compete with them. They are also able to prey on the largest of animals and can strike from the air where their attacks cannot be avoided. These attacks will often come a night where the dragon can use surprise and confusion to its advantage.

Because dragons require large amounts of food they require a large territory in which to hunt. This territory needs to be managed in such a way that the prey are inclined to remain in the territory; this despite it being the hunting ground of an unimaginably powerful apex predator.

So, I hear you breathe fire

The most extraordinary trait with dragons is that they breathe fire. Rather than assuming that this fantastic trait is simply gifted to dragons let us suppose it has both a biological cost and benefit. First, we have to assume that dragons have magical properties that are innate to their being. The two primary functions of those magical properties are to provide enough lift to allow dragons to gain and maintain flight and the ability to breathe fire. We must also assume that the dragons are immune from their own fire (and probably fire in general). Rather than speculate on how this magic works, we will assume that it is simply a part of the natural world in which dragons exist. We will also assume it comes with a biological cost (otherwise all predators would do it).

With all systems in evolutionary biology, traits with a high cost must offset that cost with a benefit. Fiction that includes dragons tends to present the benefit as simply being a means of making a terrifying monster more terrifying. However, from a biological point of view terror has no value outside of keeping those things which might harm you from approaching you. For a dragon, that thing is, for the most part, other dragons.

As already discussed, dragons would be immune to fire in general. You might say that things like armies of humanoids might pose a significant threat to a dragon and fire would certainly be a useful survival tool in that case. However, these armies came very late in dragon evolution. If a dragon lives up to 1000+ years, then the entirety of human history is only 10 dragon lifetimes long. It should be clear that dragons, in their current form, would have existed long before human civilization.

To find the solution to the utility of fire breath we have to think of dragons as more than just monsters. We need to think of them as creatures with evolutionary imperatives. To a human, a dragon may seem like a creature of pure evil, but it is simply a creature fitting into a niche that allows it to survive. More than that, dragons are highly intelligent. In some ways more that people. But why?

We know that intelligence is unnecessary in many apex predators such as sharks, crocodiles, etc. Since a stupid dragon could swoop out of the sky and pounce on prey just as easily, what is the utility of intelligence, that as we have said comes at a biological cost? The answer is ‘land management’. Dragons do not shape their environments to the extent that humans and similar creatures do. Dragons are quite comfortable living in caves with no need for light, security, or other creature comforts. They are content being solitary beings leaving their homes to patrol their domain and hunt for game. To that extent, part of managing their domain is creating and maintaining open lands where large game animals will prosper.

Dense forests on the other hand do not greatly benefit a creature that spots its prey from high in the air. Forests such as this must be maintained through controlled burns. In times of scarcity, a dragon might use its fiery breath to flush game out into the open. Again, this requires intelligence and cunning.

So can I buy you a drink?

Why would a dragon hoard wealth? This is a truly puzzling question given the fact that dragons don’t spend money. Why have it; why sleep with it? Dragons not only want money, they obsessively covet it and are likely to know exactly how much and what they have. A dragon might be able to tell you precisely how many gold pieces they have and where they came from. This is a very particular thing about dragons, their minds catalog possessions as well as lore. The dragon is likely to know quite a bit about dragon history, its own domain, threats, and the condition of the livestock in its domain. More on this later.

As previously discussed, dragonkind well predate civilization and the minting of coin. So why would they have any biological compulsion to collect these things? If we examine the basic drives of all creatures, the strongest ones are those of survival and reproduction. Since this behavior does not enhance a dragon’s ability to survive, it must enhance its ability to reproduce.

Oh, Isn’t that shiny

When we look at flying creatures we see a good deal of sexual dimorphism in many of them. Typically, males will have bright colors. The peacock is an extreme example of this. As part of sexual behavior, certain male birds will gather shiny objects to attract females. This is especially true among the more intelligent birds such as the Corvidae. These shiny items will be used to decorate the nest.

Consider the dragon; what makes him attractive: size, ferocity, and appearance. On this last one, we should ask ourselves ‘How would a healthy dragon appear?’. A healthy male dragon is likely to have glossy and colorful scales. Here we have the major attraction to gold coins. A dragon able to secure a large horde is likely to be attractive to females. The shape of coins is similar to scales. The color and shine of gold is also likely to be attractive. Again, since size is likely an attractor, a large horde would probably trigger sexual receptiveness in female dragons.

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