Natural History of Dragons

Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.

"For using dragon's bones, first cook odorous plants; bathe the bones twice in hot water, pound them to powder and put this in bags of gauze. Take a couple of young swallows and, after taking out their intestines and stomach, put the bags in the swallows and hang them over a well. After one night take the bags out of the swallows, rub the powder and mix it into medicines for strengthening the kidneys. The efficacy of such a medicine is as it were divine!"

--Chinese medical scholar Lei Xiao (AD 420-477)

Dragons in the Dust

In legends and folktales, dragons are magical--yet early naturalists often treated these creatures as part of the natural world. Biologists in Europe once wrote accounts of the behavior and habitat of dragons, along with lizards and snakes. Chinese scholars have classified the dragon as one of the 369 animal species with scales. Long before the development of paleontology, people unearthed fossilized bones in Asia and Europe--and believed they had found the remains of dragons from an earlier age.

Klagenfurt, Austria: The Lindwurmbrunnen (dragon fountain), its head the skull of a woolly rhinoceros
© A. Baker / AA World Travel / Topfoto / The Image Works

Town Trophy

Legend has it that long ago, the marshes near Klagenfurt, Austria, were haunted by a fearsome Lindwurm--a serpentlike dragon. It devoured all the people and livestock who ventured its way. Finally, a local ruler called on his knights to destroy the dragon, and after many attempts it was slain. To commemorate the event, a "dragon" skull was placed in the town hall. In 1582, an artist borrowed the skull--really the fossil remains of an Ice Age woolly rhinoceros--to use as a model in shaping a massive sculpture of the Lindwurm, which still stands in the city today.




Dragons and Dinosaurs

With their enormous size, reptilian shape and threatening teeth and claws, some dragons might easily be taken for cousins of Tyrannosaurus rex. Living dinosaurs did not inspire the dragon idea--they died out long before people were around to observe them. But the fossil remains of extinct animals have sometimes been taken for dragon bones--and helped perpetuate old dragon stories.

Mortal Enemies

According to the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), a dragon could strangle an elephant with its tail. Perhaps Pliny heard stories about pythons, which can crush and devour large animals, though elephants are beyond their capabilities.

So They Say

"The dragons of the mountains have scales of a golden color, and in length excel those of the plain, and they have bushy beards, which also are of a golden hue; and their eye is sunk deep under the eyebrow, and emits a terrible and ruthless glance."

--Greek scholar Philostratus (c. AD 170-245)

"Dragon Bones"

In traditional Chinese medicine, longgu, or "dragon bones," are prescribed as a treatment for numerous ailments, from madness to diarrhea and dysentery. Most fragments and powders sold in Chinese pharmacies as dragon bone come from fossil remains of extinct mammals, unearthed from China's renowned fossil beds.

Dragon's Blood

Arab merchants once sailed to the Socotra Islands in the Arabian Sea to obtain resin from the fruit of the palmlike dragon's blood tree. Dragon's blood was once prized as a medicine in Europe and the Middle East. According to the early Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, it formed when dragons attacked elephants, and their blood ran together and congealed.

© AMNH / D. Finnin

"Dragon" Skull

The skull of a woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis) was once kept in the town hall of Klagenfurt, Austria. It was said to be the remains of a dragon slain before the city was founded around AD 1250.

Chinese Parade Dragon

A Chinese parade dragon is carried by dancers from the Wan Chi Ming Hung-Gar Institute, a martial arts school in New York City, and performs the dragon dance, a Chinese tradition linked with the Lunar New Year.