SHOULD DRAGONS BE CLASSED AS
by Whit Gibbons
May 15, 2005
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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