Episode 384: Dragons Revisited

This week we need to thanks a bunch of listeners for their suggestions: Bowie, Eilee, Pranav, and Yuzu!

Further reading:

Elaborate Komodo dragon armor defends against other dragons

Giant killer lizard fossil shines new light on early Australians

A New Origin for Dragon Folklore?

The Wyvern of Wonderland

The Komodo dragon:

The beautiful tree goanna:

The perentie:

Fossilized scale tree bark looks like reptile scales:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to revisit a popular topic we talked about back in episode 53. That episode was about dragons, including the Komodo dragon. Since then, Bowie has requested to learn more about the Komodo dragon and Eilee and Pranav both suggested an updated dragon episode. We also have a related suggestion from Yuzu, who wants to learn more about goannas in general.

We’ll start with the Komodo dragon, which gets its name because it’s a huge and terrifying monitor lizard. It can grow over 10 feet long, or 3 meters, which means it’s the biggest lizard alive today. It has serrated teeth that can be an inch long, or 2.5 cm, and its skin is covered with bony osteoderms that make it spiky and act as armor. Since the Komodo dragon is the apex predator in its habitat, it only needs armor to protect it from other Komodo dragons.

Fortunately for people who like to hike and have picnics in nature, the Komodo dragon only lives on four small islands in Indonesia in southeast Asia, including the island of Komodo. Young Komodo dragons have no armor and spend most of the time in trees, where they eat insects and other small animals. As the dragon gets older and heavier, it spends more and more time on the ground. Its armor develops at that point and is especially strong on the head. The only patches on the head that don’t have osteoderms are around the eyes and nostrils, the edges of the mouth, and over the pineal eye. That’s an organ on the top of the head that can sense light. Yes, it’s technically a third eye!

The Komodo dragon is an ambush predator. When an animal happens by, the dragon jumps at it and gives it a big bite from its serrated teeth. Not only are its teeth huge and dangerous, its saliva contains venom. It’s very good at killing even a large animal like a wild pig quickly, but if the animal gets away it often dies from venom, infection, and blood loss.

Like a lot of reptiles, the Komodo dragon can swallow food that’s a lot bigger than its mouth. The bones of its jaws are what’s called loosely articulated, meaning the joints can flex to allow the dragon to swallow a goat whole, for instance. Its stomach can also expand to hold a really big meal all at once. After a dragon has swallowed as much as it can hold, it lies around in the sun to digest its food. After its food is digested, which can take days, it horks up a big wad of whatever it can’t digest. This includes hair or feathers, horns, hooves, teeth, and so on, all glued together with mucus.

A Komodo dragon eats anything it can catch, and the bigger the dragon is, the bigger the animals it can catch. One thing Komodo dragons are just fine with eating are other Komodo dragons.

As we mentioned a few minutes ago, the Komodo dragon is a type of monitor lizard, and there are lots of monitor lizards that live throughout much of the warmest parts of the earth, including Australia. Yuzu suggested we talk about the goanna, which is the term for monitor lizards in the genus Varanus, although it’s also a term sometimes used for all monitor lizards. Goannas are more closely related to snakes than to other types of lizard.

Like the Komodo dragon, the goanna will eat pretty much any animal it can catch, and will also scavenge already dead animals. Smaller goannas mostly eat insects, especially the tiny goanna often called the short-tailed pygmy monitor or just the pygmy monitor. Its tail is actually pretty long for its size. It only grows about 8 inches long at most, or 20 cm, and babies are less than the length of your pinkie finger. It spends most of its time underground in a burrow, but comes out to hunt for grasshoppers and other insects, spiders, scorpions, and sometimes frogs and small snakes. Many species of goanna spend the hottest part of the day in a burrow, and some species will hibernate in winter.

Most goannas spend all their time on the ground unless they’re actually underground, but some live in trees. The tree goanna, also called the lace monitor or just lacy, can grow up to seven feet long, or over two meters, but is lightly built to climb around on tree branches looking for food. The tree goanna eats a whole lot of bird eggs, along with whatever animals it can catch in trees or on the ground. It eats a lot of carrion and will even get into trash cans if it smells food. When the female is ready to lay her eggs, she digs a hole in the side of a termite nest and lays them in the nest. The termites repair the hole, which hides the eggs, and when the babies hatch, they have lots of termites to eat. The mother goanna keeps watch on the termite nest and once her eggs hatch, she’ll dig into it again to let her babies out.

Genetic testing has discovered that the tree goanna is the closest living relative to the Komodo dragon, but another relative is the biggest goanna alive today in Australia. It’s called the perentie and it can definitely grow up to 8 and a half feet long, or 2.5 meters, and possibly close to 10 feet long, or 3 meters. That’s almost the length of the Komodo dragon.

Long as it is, the perentie isn’t very heavy for its size. It has big claws that allow it to dig quickly, so that if it feels threatened it can dig a burrow and hide in it in only a few minutes. It can also climb trees and is a fast runner. Sometimes it will rear up on its hind legs, propping itself up with its tail, to get a good look around. It’s covered with a maze-like pattern of spots and speckles, and it has a very long neck and a very long tail. Like most monitor lizards, its head is flattened so that it looks a little like a snake’s head. Also like other monitor lizards, it has a long forked tongue that it flicks in and out like a snake to detect the chemical signature of other animals nearby, sort of like smelling but with the tongue.

Also like other monitor lizards, the perentie has a venomous bite. Its venom isn’t all that strong, but you still wouldn’t want to get nipped by one. A big perentie will kill and eat just about anything it can catch, including wombats and small kangaroos. It’s not dangerous to humans, though, and in fact very few people in Australia have ever seen a perentie in the wild. It’s shy and lives in remote areas, mostly in the interior of the country over to the western coast.

There used to be a goanna in Australia that was even bigger than the perentie, but it went extinct around 50,000 years ago. We talked about it briefly in episode 325, but Pranav suggested we learn more about it. It’s called megalania and not only was it bigger than the perentie, it made the Komodo dragon look like a little baby lizard. Megalania may have grown as much as 23 feet long, or 7 meters, although most scientists these days think it wasn’t quite that big. The latest estimates are still pretty big, possibly 18 feet long, or 5.5 meters. It was also heavily built, more like the Komodo dragon than the perentie, so it may have weighed as much as a polar bear. That’s about 1200 pounds, or around 550 kg, but I thought the polar bear comparison was funny. We don’t know for sure how big megalania was because we don’t have a complete skeleton.

Megalania has been classified with the living goannas in the genus Varanus, so it was probably related to the Komodo dragon, although we don’t know exactly how closely. It was probably venomous, and we know its teeth were serrated like the Komodo dragon’s. It lived throughout much of eastern Australia and may have been even more widespread, we just don’t know because we don’t have very many fossils.

Megalania lived alongside another giant monitor lizard in what is now Queensland, the Komodo dragon. That’s right, the Komodo dragon once lived in Australia, although it went extinct there around 300,000 years ago. Megalania went extinct around the time that humans first arrived in Australia, so it’s very possible that the ancestors of today’s Aboriginal Australians encountered it. In 2015, a study was published detailing the discovery of a large goanna osteoderm from a cave system in Queensland. The osteoderm has been dated to about 50,000 years ago and probably belonged to megalania, and some scientists think humans may have been a factor in its extinction, along with climate change.

There are supposedly stories passed down for thousands of years among the Aboriginal Australian peoples that suggest meetings with megalania. I tried hard to find accounts of any of these stories to share, but the sources were always questionable. I did learn that European accounts of the Dreamtime, especially older ones, are inaccurate at best. European colonizers didn’t fully understand the Aboriginal cultures and in many cases weren’t interested in understanding them. They just wanted to collect stories that they would then change to fit the European worldview. This trend continues to the present day, with non-Aboriginal writers changing, misinterpreting, or even straight up inventing Dreamtime stories to fit their own interests. Sometimes that interest is cryptozoology. From what I was able to discover, there really is one aspect of the Dreaming that does apparently include a giant goanna, but that the traditions involved are especially sacred and not meant for outsiders to learn. So it’s none of our business.

As we discussed in episode 53, European stories about dragons were probably inspired by snakes, since early dragons were described as snake-like. Dragon stories in other parts of the world were probably inspired by various local reptiles such as crocodiles. Fossilized bones also played a part, since in the olden days no one knew what dinosaurs were. All anyone knew was that sometimes they found gigantic bones that seemed to be made of stone, and people made up stories to explain them.

Stories about giant reptiles are common throughout much of the world, and in 2020 a study was published suggesting that one of the reasons wasn’t an animal at all. It was a plant, specifically a 300 million year old plant called Lepidodendron, also called the scale tree.

The scale tree wasn’t actually a tree, but it was a really big plant that could grow 160 feet tall, or 50 meters. It’s been extinct for a long time, but it does have living relations called quillworts that kind of look like weird grass.

The scale tree gets its name from the diamond-shaped pattern on its trunk, which looks for all the world like reptile scales. These were just places where leaves once grew, but as the plant got taller, it shed its lower leaves as new ones grew from the top. Different species of the plant had different scale patterns. The study suggests that fossilized pieces of scale tree trunks inspired stories about giant reptiles. Since the plants grew throughout the supercontinent Pangaea and often ended up fossilized in coal beds, their fossils have been found in many different parts of the world.

Let’s finish with a dragon story from England, specifically the village of Sockburn in County Durham. It’s referred to as the Sockburn Worm, since “worm” used to mean any creature that was snakey or worm-shaped in appearance. It’s closely related to the story of the Lambton Worm that we talked about in episode 53.

Once upon a time in the olden days, maybe around 750 years ago, maybe longer ago, Sockburn and the farmland around it were terrorized by a dragon. The dragon had a poisonous breath and would eat anyone it came across, and killed and ate all the livestock it could find. No one could kill it.

Sir John Conyers was a knight who lived in the area and he decided he had to do something. He got dressed in his armor and went to the local church to pray, and said he would give up his only son’s life if it meant killing the dragon. Then he set out to find the dragon.

He didn’t so much find the dragon as the dragon found him. Instead of getting eaten, Sir John drew his magical sword and battled the dragon until finally he lopped its head off with one massive chop. Sir John survived and so did his son.

Centuries later, in 1855, a writer was inspired by the story and wrote a poem based on it. He eventually included the poem in a book called Alice Through the Looking-Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland. You may know the poem “The Jabberwock,” and now you know the dragon story that inspired it.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 177: The Mush-khush-shu, AKA the Sirrush

This week we’ll look at an ancient mystery from the Middle East, a mythological dragon-like animal called the Mush-khush-shu, popularly known as the sirrush. Thanks to Richard J. for the suggestion!

The Ishtar Gate (left, a partial reconstruction of the gate in a Berlin museum; right, a painting of the gate as it would have looked):

The sirrush of the Ishtar Gate:

Two depictions of Silesaurus:

The desert monitor, best lizard:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week I have an interesting mystery animal suggested last September by Richard J. Thanks for the suggestion, Richard!

Before we learn about what the sirrush is, though, a quick note, or at least I’ll try to make it quick. I know a lot of people listen to Strange Animals as a fun escape from the everyday world, but right now the everyday world has important stuff going on that I can’t ignore. I want to make it clear to all my listeners that I fully support the Black Lives Matter movement, and I also support LGBTQ rights. Everyone in the whole world deserves respect and equality, but unfortunately right now we’re not there yet. We have to work for equality, all of us together.

If you’re not sure what to do to make the world a better place for everyone, it’s actually really simple. Just treat everyone the same way you want others to treat you and your friends. This sounds easy but when you meet someone who seems different from you it can be hard. If someone has different color skin from you, or speaks with an accent you find hard to understand, or uses an assistive device like a wheelchair, or if you just think someone looks or acts weird, it’s easy to treat that person different and even be rude, although you may not realize that’s what you’re doing at the time. When that happens, it’s always because you’re scared of the person’s differences. You have to consciously remind yourself that you’re being unreasonable and making that person’s day harder when it was probably already pretty hard, especially if everywhere they go, people treat them as someone who doesn’t fit in. Just treat them normally and both you and the other person will feel good at the end of the day.

So that’s that. I hope you think about this later even if right now you’re feeling irritated that I’m taking time out of my silly animal podcast to talk about it. Now, let’s find out what the sirrush is and why it’s such a mystery!

The sirrush is a word from ancient Sumerian, but it’s actually not the right term for this animal. The correct term is mush-khush-shu (mušḫuššu), but sirrush is way easier for me to pronounce. So we’ll go with sirrush, but be aware that that word is due to a mistranslation a hundred years ago and scholars don’t actually use it anymore.

My first introduction to the sirrush was when I was a kid and read the book Exotic Zoology by Willy Ley. Chapter four of that book is titled “The Sirrush of the Ishtar Gate,” and honestly this is about the best title for any chapter I can think of. But while Ley was a brilliant writer and researcher, the book was published in 1959. It’s definitely out of date now.

The sirrush is found throughout ancient Mesopotamian mythology. It usually looks like a snakelike animal with the front legs of a lion and the hind legs of an eagle. It’s sometimes depicted with small wings and a crest of some kind, sometimes horns and sometimes frills or even a little crown. And it goes back a long, long time, appearing in ancient Sumerian art some four thousand years ago.

But let’s back up a little and talk about Mesopotamia and the Ishtar Gate and so forth. If you’re like me, you’ve heard these names but only have a vague idea of what part of the world we’re talking about.

Mesopotamia refers to a region in western Asia and the Middle East, basically between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. These days the countries of Iraq and Kuwait, parts of Turkey and Syria, and a little sliver of Iran are all within what was once called Mesopotamia. It’s part of what’s sometimes referred to as the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. The known history of this region goes back five thousand years in written history, but people have lived there much, much longer. Some 50,000 years ago humans migrated from Africa into the area, found it a really nice place to live, and settled there.

Parts of it are marshy but it’s overall a semi-arid climate, with desert to the north. People developed agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, including irrigation, but many cultures specialized in fishing or nomadic grazing of animals they domesticated, including sheep, goats, and camels. As the centuries passed, the cultures of the area became more and more sophisticated, with big cities, elaborate trade routes, and stupendous artwork.

That includes the Ishtar Gate, which was one of the entrances to Babylon, the capital city of the kingdom of Babylonia. The city grew along the banks of the Euphrates River until it was one of the largest cities in the world by about 1770 BCE. Probably a quarter million people lived there in its heyday around the sixth century BCE, but it was a huge and important city for hundreds of years. It’s located in what is now Iraq not far from Baghdad. Babylon is actually the source of the Tower of Babel story in the book of Genesis. In that story, people decided to build a tower high enough to touch heaven, but God didn’t like that and caused the workers to all speak different languages and scattered them across the world. But that story may have grown from earlier stories from Mesopotamia, such as a Sumerian myth where a king asks the god Enki to restore a single language to all the people building an enormous ziggurat so the workers could communicate more easily.

Babylon means “gate of the gods,” and it did have many splendid gates in the massive walls surrounding the city. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus reported there were a hundred of these gates. One of these was the Ishtar Gate, built around 575 BCE. This wasn’t like a garden gate but an imposing and important entry point to the city. For one thing, it was the starting point of a half-mile religious procession held at the new year, which was celebrated at the spring equinox. The gate was dedicated to the goddess Ishtar and was more than 38 feet high, or 12 meters, and faced with glazed bricks. The background bricks were blue, with decorative motifs in orange and white, and there were rows of bas-relief lions, bulls, and sirrushes.

The sirrush was considered a sacred animal of both Babylon and its patron god, Marduk. It’s sometimes called a dragon in English, but from artwork that shows both Marduk and a sirrush, the sirrush was small, maybe the size of a big dog.

The question, of course, is whether the sirrush was based on a real animal or if it was an entirely mythical creature.

As I’ve said before in other episodes, every culture has stories that impart useful information—warnings, history lessons, and so forth. Every culture has monsters and mythological creatures of various kinds. That doesn’t mean those animals were ever thought of as real animals, although they might have taken on aspects of real animals. Think of it this way: You know the story of little red riding hood, right? Where the wolf meets the little girl on her way to Grandma’s house, then runs ahead and swallows the grandma whole and then tricks the little girl into coming close enough to swallow too? That story was never intended to be about a real, actual talking wolf but a warning to children to not talk to strangers. (There are plenty of other things going on in that story, but that’s the main takeaway.)

In other words, it’s quite likely that the sirrush was never meant to be anything but a creature of mythology, a glorious pet for a god. Then again, it’s also possible that it was based on a known creature, sort of like the talking wolf in Little Red Riding Hood is based on the real wolf that can’t talk.

And if that’s the case, what might that animal be?

There have been a lot of suggestions over the years. Willy Ley even suggested it was a modern dinosaur, possibly the mokele-mbembe. That was before the mokele-mbembe stories were widely recognized as hoaxes, as you may remember from way back in episode two. Other people have suggested it was an animal called a Silesaurus, which lived some 230 million years ago in what is now Poland.

Silesaurus grew up to around 7 ½ feet long, or 2.3 meters, and does kind of resemble the Ishtar Gate sirrush. It was slender and probably walked on all fours, with a long tail, long neck, and long legs. It had big eyes and probably mostly ate insects and other arthropods.

Silesaurus had traits found in dinosaurs but it wasn’t actually a dinosaur, although it belonged to a group of animals that were ancestral to dinosaurs. But it probably had one trait that puts it right out of the running to be the model for the sirrush, and that is that paleontologists think it had a beak. This wouldn’t have looked like a bird’s beak but more like a turtle’s, but it would have made the shape of the head very different from the snakelike head of the sirrush. Silesaurus probably pecked like a bird to grab insects. It also had stronger rear legs than front legs, as opposed to the sirrush that was depicted with birdlike rear legs but muscular lion-like front legs.

Silesaurus also lived 230 million years ago, so there’s just simply no way that it survived to modern times, no matter how much it superficially resembles the sirrush.

Ley also claims that the sirrush was the same dragon mentioned in the Bible, in a story called “Bel and the Dragon” in the extended Book of Daniel. Daniel slays the dragon by feeding it cakes made from hair and pitch. But there’s actually no connection between the sirrush and the dragon in this story.

One very specific detail of the sirrush is its forked tongue. This is a snakelike trait, of course, but some lizards also have forked tongues. Could the sirrush of mythology be based on a large lizard? For instance, a type of monitor lizard?

The largest monitor lizard species is the Komodo dragon, which can grow some ten feet long, or more than 3 meters. We talked about it in the Dragons episode a couple of years ago. But there are smaller, more common species that live throughout much of Africa, southern and southeastern Asia, and Australia. And that includes the Middle East.

The desert monitor was once fairly common throughout the Middle East, although it’s threatened now from habitat loss. It can grow up to five feet long, or 1.5 meters, and varies in color from light brown or grey to yellowish. Some have stripes or spots. It eats pretty much anything it can catch, and like many monitor species it’s a good swimmer. It hibernates in a burrow during the winter and also spends the hottest part of the day in its burrow. Like other monitor lizards it has a forked tongue and a flattish head. And it has a long tail, fairly long, strong legs, and a long neck.

If the sirrush was based on a real animal, it’s a good bet that that animal was the desert monitor. That doesn’t mean anyone thought the sirrush was a desert monitor or that we can point to the desert monitor and say, “Ah yes, the fabled sirrush, also called Mušḫuššu.” But people in Mesopotamia would have been familiar with this lizard, so a larger and more exaggerated version of it might have inspired artists and storytellers.

So…Boom! Looks like we solved that mystery. And we learned some history along the way. Definitely check the show notes for pictures of the Ishtar Gate, which has been partially reconstructed from bricks found in archaeological digs. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Also, the desert monitor is totally adorable.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 053: Dragons

It’s our one-year anniversary! To celebrate, I’ve opened up a Patreon bonus episode for anyone to listen to. Just click the link below and you can listen in your browser:

bonus episode – Salty Animals

This week’s episode is about dragons, specifically dragons of western/English-speaking tradition. Even narrowing it down like that leaves us with a lot of ground to cover! Thanks to Emily whose suggestion of the Komodo dragon as a topic started this whole ball rolling.

A dragon from the game Flight Rising, specifically one of MY dragons. Her name is Lily. She’s so pretty.

The Lambton worm:

A spitting cobra:

A Nile crocodile:

Deinosuchus skeleton and two humans for scale. I stole this off the internet as usual so I don’t know who the people are. They look pretty happy to be in the picture:

St. George and the Dragon (REENACTMENT):

Klagenfurt dragon statue:

A wooly rhino skull:

The star of the show today, the Komodo dragon!

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week let’s celebrate the podcast’s one-year anniversary with a big episode about dragons. Emily suggested komodo dragons as a topic, and then it all just spiraled out of control from there.

But first, a bit of housekeeping. Since it’s our one-year anniversary I’ve unlocked a Patreon episode so that anyone can listen. This one’s about salty animals. There’s a link in the show notes. Just click it and it’ll take you to the page where you can listen on your browser. You don’t need a Patreon login or anything.

Second, I got a polite correction recently from a listener about subspecies. Podbean is being a butt so I can’t actually see the comment, just read it in the email they sent, so I’m not sure who to thank. But they pointed out that “when the subspecies name is the same as the species name, it means it’s the first subspecies formally described, or the nominate subspecies.” In other words, Panthera tigris tigris didn’t get that second tigris because it’s extra tigery, it got it because it was the first tiger subspecies described. Although it is extra tigery.

So now, let’s learn about dragons.

Until the early 13th century or so, the word dragon wasn’t part of the English language. We swiped it from French, which in turn got it from Latin, which took it from Greek. Before the word dragon became a common word, dragon-like creatures were frequently called worms. A worm used to mean any animal that was snakey in shape. Old stories of dragons in English folklore are frequently snakier than modern dragons. For instance, the Lambton worm.

The story goes that a man called John Lambton went fishing one Easter Sunday instead of going to church, and as punishment he caught not fish but a black leech-like creature with nine holes on each side of its head. He flung it into a well in disgust, and joined the crusades to atone for fishing on the Sabbath. But while he was gone, the worm grew enormous. It killed people and livestock, uprooted trees, and even blighted crops with its poisonous breath. It couldn’t be killed, either, because if it was chopped in two, its pieces rejoined.

When John Lambton returned from the crusades seven years later and found out what had happened, he sought the advice of a local wise woman about what to do. Then he covered a suit of armor with sharp spines, and wearing it, lured the worm into the river Wear, where it tried to squeeze him to death. But the spines cut it up into pieces that were swept away by the river so they couldn’t rejoin. The end.

I don’t want to derail the dragon talk too much here, but I’m just going to point out that the sea lamprey has seven little holes behind each eye called branchial openings. It’s also eel-like and can be partially black, and it’s gross. If you want to learn more about it, and about my irrational dislike of this interesting animal, you can go back and listen to episode three.

Anyway, even after English adopted the word dragon, it didn’t mean dragon exactly. It was just a word for a big snake, especially one with mythical attributes or enormous size. But artists the world over are fond of adding wings and legs to reptiles, especially to snakes. Snakes just look so…undecorated. Gradually dragon took on its current meaning, that of a reptile with four legs, possibly a pair of wings, decorative horns and spikes and spines, and the ability to breathe fire. Actual. Fire.

That kind of dragon simply can’t exist except in folklore and fiction. But human creativity aside, many aspects of the dragon, at least the dragons of western tradition, are based on those of real-life animals.

If you’ve listened to episode 12, about the wyvern, the basilisk, and the cockatrice, you may remember the confusion among those terms and what they stand for. Technically all three are types of dragons, since the definition of dragon is actually pretty loose. In that episode, we discussed the king cobra as the possible source of many stories of the basilisk.

The king cobra doesn’t spit venom, but many species of cobra do. While cobra venom won’t hurt you very much if it just touches undamaged skin, it will hurt your eyes if it gets into them. And spitting cobras aim for the eyes. The venom is actually sprayed directly from the cobra’s fangs, which have tiny holes in the front that work sort of like a spray bottle. Some species of cobra can spit venom over six feet, or two meters, and they can also inject venom by biting. Cobra venom can cause blindness if enough gets in the eyes, and it certainly causes eye pain and swelling. Not only that, but a few other species of venomous snake, such as the Mangshan pit viper, sometimes also spit venom.

As far as I’m concerned, a big snake that sprays venom at your eyes is a good basis for the story of a dragon that breathes fire. I’d almost rather deal with a firebreather, to be honest, because I know to stop, drop, and roll if I catch on fire. Be safe, kids. This has been a public service announcement.

Crocodiles have undoubtedly influenced dragon mythology. In fact, so many common dragon traits are present in crocodiles that if you discount the wings and firebreathing, crocodiles basically are dragons. The biggest crocodile living today is the saltwater crocodile, which can grow over 20 feet long, or 6 meters, and which lives in southeast Asia, eastern India, and northern Australia. The second biggest crocodile is the Nile crocodile, which can grow nearly as long, and which lives throughout much of Africa around rivers, lakes, and swamps. Male saltwater crocodiles are typically larger than females, while female Nile crocodiles are typically larger than males.

While crocodiles look like big lizards, they’re actually more closely related to birds and dinosaurs. They can also live a long time, occasionally over a hundred years. All crocodiles are good swimmers with webbed feet that help them change directions quickly. They can also run pretty fast out of water. A crocodile’s back is heavily armored with thick scales and osteoderms, or scutes, which are bony deposits in the skin. Crocodiles have long jaws studded with 80 teeth, and if a croc loses a tooth, another grows in its place. It can just keep replacing its teeth up to 50 times. It has good night vision, a good sense of smell, good hearing, and special sensory pits on its jaws that allow a croc to hunt and escape danger even in complete darkness. A croc’s stomach contains acid that would make even the bearded vulture envious, so it has no problem digesting bones, hooves, and horns efficiently, a good thing since Crocodiles usually swallow their prey whole. And crocodiles have the strongest bite of any living animal, stronger even than a great white shark.

Of course, there used to be bigger crocodiles. Do you want to learn about gigantic extinct crocodiles? OF COURSE YOU DO, that is basically why we’re all here.

Okay, so, there used to be a 35-foot, or almost 11-meter-long crocodile called Deinosuchus that lived around 75 million years ago in what is now North America. It basically looked like a modern crocodile, but its rear teeth were shorter and blunter than its front teeth. They were adapted to crush its prey rather than bite through it, probably because with a bite force that was probably stronger than a T. rex’s, it didn’t want to accidentally bite a big chunk out of the dinosaurs it ate. Yeah. It ate dinosaurs.

So crocodiles probably did a lot to inspire dragon folklore. There’s still a lot of mythology wrapped around the crocodile today, for that matter. You know those little birds that are supposed to clean crocodile teeth? Not actually a thing. I’ve lived my whole life thinking that was pretty neat, only to find it’s a myth.

Sometimes in spring a croc will lie in the water with sticks on its snout. When a bird flies down to pick up a stick for nesting, the crocodile will grab the bird and eat it. This is a real thing that happens, not a myth. Crocodiles are actually pretty smart. And sometimes they hunt in packs.

One of the most famous traditional dragon stories in the English language is that of St. George and the Dragon, which probably originated from stories brought back to Britain during the Crusades. The story became especially popular in the 13th century and there are many versions.

According to the story, a venomous dragon lived in a pond near a city, and had poisoned not only its pond, but the entire countryside. To keep the dragon from approaching the city, the people had to feed it their own children. Each day the people held a terrible lottery to see who had to send one of their children to the pond for the dragon to eat. One day the princess was chosen, and despite all the king’s gold and silver he had to send his daughter to be eaten by the dragon.

Fortunately for her, St. George just happened to be riding by. The dragon emerged from its pond and St. George thought, oh no, we’re not having any of that, and charged it. He wounded it with his lance, then had the princess give him her girdle to use as a collar. A girdle in this case was something between a decorative belt and a ribbon tied around the waist. As soon as St. George tied the girdle around the dragon’s neck, it became meek as a puppy and followed him back to the city.

Naturally, everyone was terrified, but St. George said he would kill the dragon if the king and his people would convert to Christianity. They did, he did, and that was the end of the dragon.

While crocodiles and big snakes undoubtedly strongly influenced dragon lore, something else did too. There’s a reason dragons are so often supposed to live in caves, for instance. Caves are good places to find fossils of huge extinct animals.

In Klagenfurt in Austria there’s a monument of a dragon, called the lindorm or lindwurm, that was erected in 1593. It still stands today, together with a statue of Hercules that was added almost 40 years later. The dragon statue is based on a story of the region. The story goes that a dragon lived near the lake and on foggy days would leap out of the fog and attack people. Sometimes people could hear its roaring over the noise of the river. Finally the duke had a tower built and filled it with brave knights. They fastened a barbed chain to a collar on a bull, and when the dragon came and swallowed the bull, the chain caught in its throat and tethered it to the tower. The knights came out and killed the dragon.

The original story probably dates to around the 12th century, but it was given new life in 1335 when a skull was found in a local gravel pit. It was clearly a dragon skull and in fact it’s still on display in a local museum. The monument’s artist based the shape of the dragon’s head on the skull. In 1935 the skull was identified as that of a wooly rhinoceros.

Other dragon stories probably started when someone saw huge fossils they couldn’t identify. Dragons, after all, can look like just about anything. Stories of benevolent dragons living on Mount Pilatus in Switzerland may have started by pterodactyl fossils that are frequently found in the area. In 1421 a farmer saw a dragon flying to the mountain, and it was so close to him that the farmer fainted. When he woke, he found a stone left for him by the dragon, which had healing properties. The dragonstone is in a local museum these days and has been identified as a meteorite.

It occurs to me that if one were rich, and by one I mean me, one could take a dragon tour through Europe and visit all these awesome monuments and museums. That would be part of my expedition to search for the tatzelwurm in the Alps.

We’ll finish up at the animal I mentioned at the beginning of the episode, the Komodo dragon. While in many respects the Komodo dragon is a real-life dragon, it probably didn’t influence traditional dragon stories in the western world because no one in Europe knew anything about it until 1910. It only lives on five small islands, notably Komodo, but it’s also found on the island of Flores where the Homo floresiensis remains were found.

There were rumors for years of a type of land crocodile found on Komodo. Dutch sailors said it actually breathed fire and could even fly. In 1910, a Dutch Colonial Administration official from Flores took some soldiers to Komodo and searched for the dragon. They shot one, and Peter Ouwens, director of the Zoological Museum in Bogor, Java, hired hunters who killed two more. Ouwens studied the lizards and published a formal description in 1912. In direct contrast to many governments of the time, who were apparently trying to drive as many species to extinction as possible, in 1915 the Dutch government listed the Komodo dragon as protected.

Keep in mind that at this time, people were completely bonkers about dinosaurs and other megafauna. The Komodo dragon got incredibly famous in a very short amount of time. A 1926 scientific expedition that brought back two live dragons and twelve preserved ones actually inspired the 1933 movie King Kong. Since Komodo dragons displayed in zoos proved to be huge draws, but didn’t survive long in captivity back then, if the dragon hadn’t already been protected it probably would have been driven to extinction by collectors capturing them for zoos and killing them to sell to museums as taxidermied specimens.

Researchers used to think that the Komodo dragon, which is a type of monitor lizard, demonstrated island gigantism, where some species that are typically not so big grow larger when a population is restricted to an island. Island dwarfism is its opposite, where big animals like elephants evolve to become smaller in an island habitat. But many species of monitor lizard are large even though they don’t live on islands, and it turns out that a close relative of the Komodo dragon lived in Australia until around 50,000 years ago. In fact, the first aboriginal settlers of Australia might have encountered it.

It was called Megalania and it was the largest straight-up lizard, as opposed to dinosaur, that’s ever been found. While we don’t have any complete skeletons, some researchers estimate it grew to around 18 feet long, or 5.5 meters, although older estimates had it up to 23 feet long, or 7 meters. Either way, it was much bigger than the Komodo dragon, which can grow just over ten feet long, or more than 3 meters.

Like the crocodile, the Komodo dragon’s skin contains osteoderms. It almost looks like it’s covered with tiny spines up close. Also like the crocodile, it grows new teeth when it loses old ones, which frankly is something I wish mammals could do because how useful would that be? It can run faster than a crocodile, can swim and dive well when it needs to although it prefers to stay on land, and when it’s young it can climb trees. Older dragons are too heavy to climb trees, but an adult can stand on its hind legs using its tail as a prop. It likes to dig burrows to sleep in, and females may dig nesting burrows 30 feet long, or 9 meters.

The Komodo dragon eats anything, from carrion to baby Komodo dragons to humans, but it especially likes deer and wild pigs. Its sense of smell is so acute, it can smell a dying animal almost six miles away, or 9 ½ km. It will swallow smaller prey whole but will tear chunks off of bigger carcasses.

We’re still learning about the Komodo dragon. For a long time researchers thought it had a nasty dirty mouth full of rotten meat, which infected its prey with bacteria when bitten. But it turns out that the Komodo dragon is actually venomous. This is still somewhat controversial, since the Komodo dragon’s saliva does contain 57 strains of bacteria and some researchers think that’s more toxic than its venom. Whatever the case, you do not want to be bitten by a Komodo dragon.

It’s primarily an ambush predator, and when it attacks an animal, it gives it a bite with its huge serrated teeth. If the animal gets away, no problem. The dragon’s venom contains anticoagulants so it will probably die of blood loss. As for the dragon itself, its blood actually contains antimicrobial proteins. Researchers hope to develop new antibiotics from the proteins.

Komodo dragon eggs are big, about the size of grapefruits. The mother dragon guards her nest until the babies hatch, and some researchers have observed mothers defending their babies for short periods after they hatch. Baby dragons mostly live in trees and eat insects, lizards, birds’ eggs, and other small prey. If they want to approach a grown-up dragon’s kill to eat some of it, a baby will roll around in poop first or in the stinky parts of the dead animal’s guts so the adult dragons won’t eat the baby. Captive female dragons occasionally lay fertile eggs even though they’ve never mated, a process known as parthenogesis.

Komodo dragons look dumb. They’re probably not exactly geniuses even compared to crocodiles. But dragons kept in captivity sometimes play with items in their enclosures, which is pretty neat. If even a Komodo dragon can take time out of its busy schedule to play, you can too.

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