Could dragons be real? Not in the way we think.

When it comes to dragons, the human imagination has been stuck in one gear for centuries. Whether it be the Loong dragon of Chinese astrology, the Fafnir of Viking legend, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Smaug, or Westeros’s “fire-made flesh,” the formula of flight, ferocity, and volcanic breath hardly changes. Which leads us to ask, are these storytellers onto something?

The new HBO drama House of the Dragon gave us an excuse to bug some reptile and dinosaur experts, and have them share their scientific interpretations of these magical hellfire beasts.

Riley Black, paleontology writer for PopSci and many others


The House of the Dragon reptiles look pretty ho-hum to me. They are your standard Western dragon we’re all pretty familiar with, pretty much all the same form and likely the same species, and are only about as different from each other as two Komodo dragons. In a show boasting 17 dragons, I would have loved to see some of the many other forms dragons have taken in mythology and folklore, whether that be a many-headed hydra, a legless wyrm, or an Eastern dragon, similar to the Chinese dragons with antlers and fish fins.

In Game of Thrones, Reign of Fire, and Dragonheart, the obvious dragon characteristics include a giant size, leathery wings, and the ability to breathe fire. Some of these traits are more plausible than others. Giant reptiles have soared over the skies, so large that they could travel between continents. Quetzalcoatlus was a pterosaur with a wingspan about 33 feet across. That’s pretty impressive, especially when you consider that this flier was the same stature as a giraffe on the ground. It also flew on wings made up of a resilient membrane stretched out on an extraordinarily-elongated fourth finger, so that’s getting pretty close to traditional dragon territory. Of course, Quetzalcoatlus was pretty light for its size—in the neighborhood of 200 pounds—meaning that those House of the Dragon stars look a little too massive to be airborne. Pterosaur bones are paper thin and were likely much more fragile creatures than the burly dragons on our televisions.



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