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The Zoological History of Dragons & Co.

History of dragons

Dragons and sea-serpents play important roles in the mythologies of most of the world’s many cultures, from China and India to the Americas, from Greenland in the Arctic to New Guinea and Australia. It is obvious from the descriptions, the paintings and sculptures of dragons and sea-serpents that in the distant past fearsome and formidable snakes must have been the model for both, because the characteristics of that group of limbless reptilians are just too obvious to be overlooked.

Other anatomical elements, especially in the Eurasian dragons, seem to have come from lion, antelope and bird, principally the eagle. In East Asia, moreover, the presence of crocodiles and large lizards such as the various monitor species, or even the smaller gliding species like Draco spp., may have contributed as well. Skeletons of sea-serpents, displayed by travelling circuses and museums right into the beginning of the 20th century, all turned out to be deliberate frauds or wrongly identified parts of the vertebral column of whales and whale-sharks. And yet sightings of sea-serpent-like organisms should not be rejected outright as a hoax or trick of an intoxicated sailor’s brain, but may have a proper explanation: there is after all the oarfish Regalecus glesne, an amazing species of which we caught one once when I was on a research vessel to the South Atlantic ocean to test its potential as a region for commercial fishing at mesopelagic depths. Regalecus glesne, up to 11 m long, are known and their sinusoidal body movements resemble those of a swimming snake.

However, the real sea snakes are only approximately 1 metre long. Highly poisonous (but luckily not aggressive), they occur only in the warmer waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans and not the Atlantic (so far they have found it impossible to enter the Atlantic because of the cold water at the southern tips of Africa and South America). These species are probably far too small to have frightened our sailors out of their wits, but dolphins, even penguins, “porpoising” at a distance (arching briefly out of the water in single file) can resemble a large sea-serpent with parts of its body periodically breaching the water surface. Drifting logs and even man-made objects (is that nowadays ‘sexist language’ and I should have added “and woman-made”?) have been implicated. But there are more adventurous and imaginative interpretations than the beats themselves.

Some researchers have suggested that early hominoids might still have run into one or the other dino- or plesiosaurus species that had somehow survived into modern times; others have argued that the image of dragons, etc., perceived by the first shrew-like mammals of the Cretaceous 140 million years ago could have been handed on, genetically coded, from one evolutionary advance to another. There is one other explanation, at least for the sea-serpent: Dr Peter Castle of Victoria University in New Zealand had described an eel-larva of 1.5 m body length in 1973 and I also captured one of similar looks, although somewhat smaller (60 cm) and reported that find in 1975. If these eel larvae, whose species of adult eel they ultimately turn into nobody knows, would metamorphose into an adult eel (like the common so-called glass eel larvae do at a length of 5-6 cm), then we would have gigantic eels, 25 m and 10 m in length. Not only that: we would have our sea-serpents as well !

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2018.
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