Zoology: Here be dragons

Do dragons exist? This research from Andrew J. Hamilton, Robert M. May and Edward K. Waters, explores . . .

Andrew J. Hamilton, Robert M. May & Edward K. Waters

Emerging evidence indicates that dragons can no longer be dismissed as creatures of legend and fantasy and that anthropogenic effects on the world's climate may inadvertently be paving the way for the resurgence of these beasts.

Long considered to be the stuff of legend, dragons cross cultures and continents. Until recently, however, scant attention had been paid to the fact that the commonality in cultural representations of such creatures indicates something more sinister. From depictions in Ancient Greek literature and Slavic myth to the dragons of the East or allusions in Zoroastrian scripture, the descriptions resonate. What if these legends were rooted in truth? The differences in appearance — some lack wings, some have multiple heads and some seem not to breathe fire — once thought to reflect local traditions, can also readily be explained by speciation.

The 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta in 1215 has sparked an unprecedented investigation of literary resources from the early medieval period. One such document, uncovered by chance under a pile of rusty candlesticks in a locked cupboard marked “loste propertie” in the depths of the University of Oxford's Bodleian Library, provides strong evidence that the field of fantastical beasts requires urgent re-evaluation. Attributed to the monk Godfrey of Exmouth, the treatise discusses many verified aspects of English history but, crucially, proffers evidence that for millennia dragons have periodically been a scourge to civilizations.

Further work has revealed that the early medieval period was a veritable paradise for dragons. This can be attributed to the period's unusually warm temperatures (Fig. 1) and an abundance of knights, the beasts' favourite combatant and food. It was also a time when wealth and status were measured in terms of gold and silver — the preferred nesting material for Western dragons. As a result, the major needs for living, feeding and, crucially, relaxation were readily available to dragons, allowing populations to flourish. The roasting of flesh and the indiscriminate demolition of hovels and castles became commonplace.

 Figure 1: The rise and fall and rise again of dragons. The relative frequency of 'dragons' in fictional literature (thick red line), as determined as a unigram probability (ref. 4), with two historical reconstructions of Northern Hemisphere temperature (decadal smoothing) shown in blue (ref. 5) and purple (ref. 6). Global temperatures have been measured since 1855 (thick black line (ref. 5)). Temperature anomalies represent deviations from the 1961–90 reference period. The rising incidence of dragons in the literature correlates with rising temperatures and suggests that these fire-breathing lizards are being sighted more frequently. As a result, the large-scale 'Third Stir' is deemed to be imminent.

As Godfrey of Exmouth attests, this was an era when humanity as a whole was fully aware of the existence of dragons and all other magical beings. It is likely that the persistent antisocial behaviour of dragons, and the failure of seemingly powerful magical beings to combat the scourge effectively, led to a deep-seated antipathy: witches became kindling, wizards who dared to imagine a heliocentric Universe suffered the indignity of trial and ridicule.

The combination of decreasing temperatures and a sharp decline in the number of knights saw the onset among dragons of The Great Sleep around the start of the fifteenth century. Such a phenomenon is well recognized: many ectothermic beasts enter a period of brumation (analogous to hibernation in endotherms) under adverse food and climatic conditions. The Great Sleep coincided with what is generally referred to as the Little Ice Age (Fig. 1.). Historical records demonstrate that this period was a time of relative peace, at least with regard to dragon attacks. Many believed that dragons — the fire-breathing species, at any rate — had become extinct by the thirteenth or fourteenth century (ref. 1). This belief has further been extended to a perplexing level, whereby conventional opinion now holds that dragons, and indeed all other magical beings, are mere fantasy. Such a creed has been a blessing for dragons because it spelt an end to the persecutions. Witches are now seen as crazy but harmless women, and wizards as senile old men with nothing better to do than wander around folk festivals in funny hats.

The calm was shaken briefly from 1586 to 1597 with The First Stir. Dragons behave no differently from other ectotherms in their brumation protocols, and they will periodically awaken from their slumber and check to see whether outside conditions justify ending the torpor. With their need to maintain extremely high temperatures in their buccal and nasal furnaces, it is crucially important for the fire-breathing species to ensure that the environmental conditions are energetically favourable before breaking their dormancy: there must be warmth and food. Fortunately, The First Stir coincided with the depths of the Little Ice Age and a bewildering lack of knights. Thus, the decision to return to slumber was made without hesitation. Although very few witnessed the awakenings, those who did (including some highly respected philosophers) were quick to record their astonishment in text (Fig. 1), but were immediately ridiculed by their peers and their writings relegated to the disrespected genre of fiction.

The Second Stir, 1680–90, although generally considered smaller than the first, produced similar results. Belief in dragons was virtually restricted to youngsters — who are readily ignored — and a handful of believing philosophers (scientists), who were acutely aware of how their predecessors had been ostracized a century earlier and so chose to remain mostly silent on sightings. This is reflected in the lower frequency of dragons in the literature in this stir compared with the first (Fig. 1).

The shift in societal views of dragons from reality to fantasy has been described by some as a kind of bewitchment. Newt Scamander (ref. 2)  suggests that there was a deliberate policy among those of a 'magical' persuasion to hide the creatures. This is thought to have taken the form of casting a neurotransfer spell that translocates all information on magical phenomena held in the brain to a small lobe of the neocortex exclusively reserved for imaginative thought. As a result, any reported sightings are almost always done under the unconscious protection of fictitious communication. (This view has been challenged in the light of other cryptozoological phenomena such as the yeti or the Loch Ness monster, although the evidence remains inconclusive and proponents have largely been dismissed as unsuitable for responsible positions.)

It would have been expected that humanity's ignorance of the dragon situation would have been maintained were it not for a combination of events in the past few decades. First, the global economic downturn has led to a rise in the search for 'buried' treasure, and hoards that serve as homes to resting dragons are an ideal way to bolster a failing economic policy. This strategy of 'quantitative thieving' is highly likely to provoke reprisals from slumbering dragons who awake to discover that their nests have been stripped bare.

To make matters worse, it seems that the 'block' on human awareness is occasionally failing, as evidenced in 1976 when a scientist (ironically, a knight and baron) published a non-fiction manuscript on dragons in Nature (ref. 3). Sluggish action on global warming is set to compound the problem, and policies such as the restoration of knighthoods in Australia are likely to exacerbate the predicament yet further by providing a sustained and delicious food supply. It is now only a matter of time before The Third Stir takes place, and this, to borrow a phrase from Godfrey of Exmouth, will be the “bigge one”. Climatic conditions are rapidly reaching an optimum for breeding dragons, and it is only a matter of time before the neurotransfer spell loses its efficacy completely. Further research into fireproof protective clothing is highly recommended — as is an avoidance of honorific titles.

Andrew J. Hamilton is at The University of Melbourne and Federation University, Australia.

Robert M. May is at the University of Oxford, UK.

Edward K. Waters is at the University of Notre Dame Australia, Australia.

1  Hogarth, P. J. Bull. Br. Ecol. Soc. 7, 2–5 (1976).

2  Scamander, N. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Bloomsbury, 2001).

3  May, R. M. Nature 264, 16–17 (1976).

4  Michel, J.-B. et al. Science 331, 176–182 (2011).

5  Mann, M. E. et al. Science 326, 1256–1260 (2009).

6  Moberg, A. et al. Nature 433, 613–617 (2005).

This article first appeared in Nature 520, 42–43 (2015), visit nature.com for more from Nature