Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Hic Sunt Dracones (aka Here be Dragons)

We find dragons in various religions and cultures around the world, often revered as representatives of the primal forces of nature, religion and the universe. Usually, dragons are associated with wisdom and longevity, sometimes possessing some form of magic or other supernatural power. We all know movie and television's version of dragons--typically reptilian or serpentine in trait with large wings and sometimes horns. They may even breathe fire. With the discovery of how pterosaurs walked on ground, some dragons have been portrayed without front legs and using the wings instead as front legs.

The word dragon entered the english language in early 13th century. Derived from the Latin word draconem meaning "huge serpent, dragon," and from the Greek word δράκων, drakon meaning "serpent, giant seafish". The Greek and Latin term referred to any great serpents, not necessarily mythological. This usage was also used in English up to the 18th century.

While those may have been ancient depictions, populated by Hollywood and the imagination, there are a few real live "dragons" alive today. They don't breathe fire or are larger than a house, but they are very cool nevertheless and look like little dragons.

image credit: redbubble.com

The first is what's called a glaucus atlanticus or the blue sea slug often found in the temperate and tropical waters. It is a member of a new species called nudibranch which is a marine snail that lost is shell back in early evolutionary history. There are more than 3,000 species and are known for their elaborate patterns and vibrant colours. It floats on the surface of the water with the aid of a gas filled sac in its stomach. Because of the location of the sac, this little slug floats upside down. They feed on the venomous Portuguese Man o' War Physalia physalis; the by-the-wind-sailor Velella velella; the blue button Porpita porpita; and the violet snail, Janthina janthina. They survive by collecting the animal's toxins and storing them in littel sacs on the ends of their feather-like "fingers", producing a much more powerful and deadly sting.

The second is the gliding lizard, belonging to the genus Draco. This little guy looks more like the mythological creature. There are more than 45 species, ranging in size from 7-15 cm in length and are native to Southeast Asia.

The wings of the lizards are actually a rearranged rib cage in which one of the primary functions is to allow them to glide. By elongating their extended movable ribs, spanning the large flap of skin between their limbs, these arboreal reptiles can glide distances of over 60 meters. They also have a small set of flaps on their neck that serve as a horizontal stabilizer and a rudder-like tail to steer.

Not exactly creatures of legend, but still. What about the mythology of dragons do you like? What intrigues you?

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