by Whit Gibbons

May 15, 2005

The recent ivory-billed woodpecker revelation reminded me of a column I once wrote about another species everyone assumes is now extinct: dragons. We know they once existed because everybody said so, particularly those who were educated and could write. But what do we really know about the ecology of dragons?

According to Babylonian mythecologists 4,000 years ago, the first dragon in the universe was named Tiamat, soon followed by the only other living thing, Apsu, another dragon. The first studies on feeding ecology and predator-prey relationships were not difficult. The food chain was a simple one. According to the Babylonians, Tiamat was a female who was wild, disorderly, and powerful. She had scales, claws, wings, and horns. She contemplated eating Apsu, but upon discovering that he was a male, she began to have offspring instead. Family quarrels and bickering soon began and lasted over the next few eons. In what may have been the first observed case of ecological competition, or possibly the first recorded response to child abuse, the children killed Apsu.

Tiamat was displeased and, out of a combination of indignation and meanness, gave birth to a host of other children. Population ecology emerged as a confusing field of study, a situation that has lasted through time. One of the children was the Babylonian god Marduk, who eventually killed Tiamat, his mother. If you think children get a bit presumptuous and out of hand today, consider the family values of these dragons. Marduk went on to make Earth and Man, a category back then that included all humans. Although many people today think dragons would not have existed without humans, the Babylonian version had it just the other way around.

People do not ordinarily make things up without some basis in fact, so what was the origin of dragon lore? Modern-day reptiles that are typecast for the role of dragons are the crocodilians. These big reptiles are very private creatures that do not willingly divulge their ecological secrets, even to scientists. Plus, reptiles are often given credit for behavior far beyond their abilities. Promoting a little imagination and superstition among an uneducated and gullible population a few centuries ago would be no more difficult than today.

The local name for the Chinese alligator, a creature not unlike the American alligator, was "earth dragon." Even today's scientists have a tendency to fill in the biological blanks when they don't know the answers, so it is easy to see how some imaginary dragon feats developed. Reports of an airborne crocodile that acted like a flame thrower went unchallenged. Judging from what people seem willing to believe about Big Foot or Lizard Man sightings, the early perpetrators and believers of dragon myths have a lot of descendants.

A source of a reinforcement that monsters like dragons existed eventually came in the form of dinosaur fossils found throughout China. Big bones meant big animals, and the dragon lore fit in perfectly. After all, is a Chinese dragon any more improbable than a Tyrannosaurus rex?

Among the Chinese ecological observations about dragons were that they loved to eat swallows. In fact, people who had eaten swallows were advised not to swim rivers lest they become a meal for a river dragon. Perhaps most environmentally important is that dragons were credited with controlling the weather, especially rainfall. Thus they were ultimately responsible for floods and droughts. Early Babylonian lawyers probably debated cases about whether a person with dragon insurance could claim flood damage to his house. And the local weather channel could always blame unpredicted bad weather on the unruly dragons.

Once dragons had settled down in the Far East, they behaved with dignity and were held in awe. Eventually, they began to migrate West and became more quarrelsome toward humans, engaging in fights with saints, ocean travelers, half gods, hobbits, and a few regular guys. Once they had swum or flown across the English Channel they had acquired a taste for beautiful virgins, delighted in opportunities to take on regional heroes in mortal combat, and were forever causing problems to villages and kings. But all animals evolve over time. It's the least we would expect from dragons.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)