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What If Dragons Were Real?

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
From "Game of Thrones" to "Harry Potter", dragons are the world's favourite mythological monster! So, what if they actually existed? What if dragons were real? Winged fire-breathers hell bent on causing total carnage, dragons are clever (like Smaug in "The Hobbit"), powerful (like the beast in "Beowulf") and extremely loyal (like those protecting Daenerys Targaryen in "Game of Thrones"). But, what would happen if dragons really did rule our skies? How would our lives change?

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What if Dragons Were Real?

These legendary apex predators have terrorised our imaginations for thousands of years. As bloodthirsty brutes looking to kill, eat, and plunder, collecting vast hordes of wealth and obliterating anyone who dares to challenge them, they’re pop culture’s favourite ever mythological monster.

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; What if dragons were real?

Of course, there are different types of dragon. While in the Far East the creatures are rare, divine entities boasting godlike wisdom, in western cultures they’re vast reptiles and indiscriminate killing machines. Today, we’re talking the typically winged, usually fire-breathing monsters, the like of which are traditionally feared throughout Europe.

But even in Europe, there’s a ferocious variety of dragon. The kind found fighting St. George, or in the Anglo-Saxon epic “Beowulf”, are paraded as definitely evil. Meanwhile, some more contemporary versions are more than just predators. The Great Dragon in “Merlin” is as intelligent as he is deadly; Smaug in “The Hobbit” bristles with rage, but also takes the time to chat; Daenerys’ dragons in “Game of Thrones” are terrifying, but tremendously loyal; and, as for the animated characters in the “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise, they’re proof that even legendary lizards from hell can be cute.

But, what about dragons in the real world? Could they even happen? Well, to some degree, yes. And in fact, arguably the most farfetched thing about them – the breathing of fire – is also the easiest to explain away. When it comes to actual fire-breathing creatures, science first points us to the tiny Bombardier Beetle, which squirts boiling-hot, noxious chemicals from its body when it feels threatened. The mechanism is a completely natural thing - much like a squid’s ink defence, or a skunk’s spray - only it wards off potential predators by burning them. Renowned palaeontologist Henry Gee says something similar could theoretically exist in the throat of dragons. Gee goes one step further, though, theorizing that if an animal could somehow internally mix ethanol and sulfuric acid, they could wind up producing diethyl ether - which is so combustible that the simple action of spitting it out could ignite it.

Fire-breathing; check. But, what about flight? It feels like it should be the easier attribute to actually achieve, given that so many animals do already fly. But, dragon-flight almost certainly wouldn’t play out like it does in the stories. The enormous, leathery wings we’re so used to imagining, simply aren’t big enough to get the monumental beasts off the ground. There is hope with Wyverns, though… a specific type of dragon more closely resembling bats or birds, with only two legs and two wings. Relatively speaking, Wyverns are just a little more plausible.

That said, it’s actually scientifically unheard for a creature with a backbone to also have the full set of six limbs that a dragon usually needs – arms, legs and wings. But, that wasn’t the case for the dinosaurs. Naturally enough, there is a long history of dinosaur bones being misidentified as dragon remains – mostly thanks to the fact that massive winged creatures did exist. The largest we know of were the azhdarchid pterosaurs; huge, flying reptiles about the same size as giraffes, with a wingspan of up to 20 metres. One of the largest fossils of this type was put on display in Germany in 2018, where it was ominously nicknamed “Dracula”.

But, say the scientifically improbable six-limbed beasts did exist. Us mere humans would surely live in fear of them. Able to devastate towns, wreck cities and burn down buildings, forests, and whole armies of people within seconds, they’d clearly sit above us (and everything else) on the food chain. Sure, there are already deadly animals living on Earth, but none as relentlessly aggressive, violent and unpredictable as a dragon. Real-world examples of notably bloodthirsty animals include Gustave, a six-metre-long Nile crocodile in Burundi thought to have killed at least 300 people, and once dubbed the “most prolific serial killer alive”. There were also the infamous Lions of Njombe, a pride of man-eaters who terrorised Tanzania from 1932 to 1947 - reportedly killing at least 1,500 people. But these are extreme cases, centred on animals that can’t fly, breathe fire or even closely match a dragon for size, weight and power. If dragons were real, then beast-to-beast death tolls well within the thousands would become the norm.

All of which would inevitably lead to a fight-back via dragon-hunting. Humans have hurried various animals to extinction in the past, including large predators like the short-faced bear. But, to battle dragons, we’d need all new weapons and technologies - much improved on the canons and catapults you usually see in medieval, dragon-centred movies. Almost every aspect of our lives would in some way be influenced by the dragons that could incinerate us at any moment, so ‘Dragon Hunter’ would be an especially respected (if risky) career path.

As for those other ways in which our lives would change, there are many… The price of real estate would be based on the vicinity of dragons; air travel would be much less popular, given what your plane could cross paths with; whole areas of land would become ‘dragon enclosures’, in a bid to manage the creatures. There’d be divided opinions on how dragons should be treated, while anyone specialising in ‘dragon-proofing’ techniques would see their business boom as people try to make their homes as safe as possible. Any medical professional would be trained to treat dragon burn, while soldiers, sailors and military pilots would all learn dragon protocol. In a bid to keep the beasts away from human populations, livestock would be reared as dragon feed… All while scientists work to develop some sort of sustainable super-crop to offer them instead. Whole weather systems could even be influenced by the fiery presence of a dragon nearby, while social media and local news channels would be constantly awash with the latest dragon sightings.

But, it needn’t be all bad… and some pop culture dragons do tap into a brighter side of our hypothetical co-existence. If dragons could in any way be tamed, then they’d become our allies, friends or even pets - after all, domesticated exotic animals aren’t exactly unheard of in recent history, even if they are controversial. There’d no doubt be some in support of dragon-racing for sport, while others would campaign for dragon freedom. We’d see a much greater dragon influence on our art, culture and history in general, and the existence of dragons would serve as a constant reminder of our own place in the world.

As equal parts terrifying and majestic, the Earth would be theirs to rule. And that’s what would happen if dragons were real.

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