Dinosaurs & Dragons: Where Myth Meets ScienceNovember 2, 2023
Written by: Haley Dyck
Stories of fire-breathing behemoths and prehistoric beasts have long captured our imaginations. Despite existing between the worlds of fantasy and reality, dragons and dinosaurs are often associated with one another, leaving us to wonder how exactly the two worlds connect. Join QMNH co-op student, Haley, on a fascinating and fantastical journey to where myth meets science.
Have you ever wondered what animals were called before they had their name? What about dinosaurs? Were they always called dinosaurs? This is something that I recently began to wonder about. To answer this question, we must take a closer look at the history of dinosaurs and dragons — a history that crosses many times.
A dinosaur is an extinct reptile. Dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago, but were around for about 245 million years before that. Dinosaurs are identified through fossils found throughout all seven of the world’s continents. As of now, there are around 700 identified species of dinosaur. Though not always, these creatures are famed for being humongous predators. T.rex, for example, could grow up to 12 feet tall and bite through bone. When dinosaurs were alive, they made up a complex food chain. Living long before the first humans appeared, dinosaurs may seem like a legendary being to some.
Dragons are mythical creatures that have appeared throughout history in legends, myths, and stories. Traditionally, they have been described and depicted as having a lizard-like appearances, with scales and long tails. In fact, dragons are one of the 369 animals Chinese scholars have classified as having scales. More modern iterations of dragons may also have wings and the ability to breathe fire. Worldwide, there are many different depictions of dragons, often associated with a particular religious or spiritual meaning. It can be quite difficult to gather a complete understanding of dragons, as they only appear in legend and they take many forms.
Throughout history, dragons have been depicted in many different ways. Towards the end of the 2nd millennium BCE, they were portrayed as giant snakes and sometimes water serpents. This imagery was common in earlier dragon depictions. In Ancient Egypt, dragons took on a more ferocious form, often characterized by their ability to breathe fire and spit poison. It took centuries to arrive at the fire-breathing, flying version of dragons that we now see portrayed in popular fantasy.
The first ‘dinosaur’ bone was discovered in 1677 by Robert Plot, though at the time there was no such word for it. At the time of his find, Plot assumed that the bone belonged to a giant human. For over 100 years, Plot’s discovery remained tucked away in a collections storage room. William Buckland, acting as curator of Oxford University Museum of Natural History, rediscovered the fossilized bone in 1815 while searching for specimens to exhibit, though he still did not know exactly what species the bone belonged to. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later in 1824 when Buckland concluded that the fossils belonged to an extinct carnivorous lizard. He named this lizard Megalosaurus, what we now know as a genus of large theropod from the Middle Jurassic. As more similar fossils were discovered in the following years, it became apparent that they belonged to a much larger family. In 1842, Sir Richard Owen gave this family the name ‘dinosauria’, meaning terrible lizard. Over time, this name evolved into the common word we know today: dinosaur.
If the word dinosaur wasn’t used until 1842, what were people calling these creatures for 165 years after Robert Plot? Well, many palaeontologists were calling them dragons. The English term dragon comes from the Greek word ‘drakōn.’ The term was initially used for any giant serpent, including snakes and lizards. This is why earlier depictions of dragons took a serpent-like form. It also is why dinosaurs were originally called dragons, as they resembled large lizards. For thousands of years, people used the word dragon to refer to dinosaurs, so naturally it wasn’t an immediate switch to the newly coined name. The switch was more gradual, with the names dinosaur and dragon being used interchangeably in writings during the later half of the nineteenth century.
The history of dinosaurs and dragons is long, complex, and interwoven, which makes it difficult to accurately trace. The simple answer to how they became so entwined is that we, as humans, naturally seek a reasonable explanation for everything new we discover. We have no choice but to formulate conclusions using the evidence we have available to us at any given time. Legends of dragons existed long before dinosaur fossils were ever uncovered, so it makes perfect sense that early discoveries were thought to be dragon bones. It seemed quite reasonable at the time to assume that these newly uncovered bones belonged to ancient dragons heard about in stories. Dinosaur remains being initially mistaken for dragons has only helped to further fuel these stories, myths, and legends, bringing them into the modern age.
Although dragons and dinosaurs have been connected throughout history, they are two completely different creatures, existing in two very different worlds. Today, both creatures have a firmly established place in popular media and public understanding. In contemporary terms, the two beings have many key differences, but they are fun to compare. Both dragons and dinosaurs are reptiles, but dragons are widely considered to be reptiles with the traits of mammals. Dragons are seen as fierce creatures with amour-like scales, fiery breath, and the ability to fly, whereas only some species of dinosaurs have scales. Dinosaurs can be carnivores, omnivores, or herbivores, while dragons are known for their carnivorous diet. Dinosaur intelligence is difficult to measure, but dragons are often portrayed as highly intelligent creatures.
The language and knowledge surrounding both dinosaurs and dragons has evolved over the years. The fire-breathing beast soaring through the clouds that we now associate with dragons is far from the serpent-like creature of early depictions. Similarly, palaeontologists are finding new information about dinosaurs everyday, changing the way we view the species. Perhaps in another 200 years, dinosaurs as we know them will have taken on an entirely new name and meaning. What do you think?
Definition of Dragon. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/dragon-mythological-creature
Differences Between Dragons & Dinosaurs. Retrieved from https://dinosaurfactsforkids.com/differences-between-dinosaurs-and-dragons/
Dinosaur Facts. Retrieved from https://www.amnh.org/dinosaurs/dinosaur-facts
Natural History of Dragons. Retrieved from https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/mythic-creatures/dragons/natural-history-of-dragons
The First Dinosaur Fossil Name. Retrieved from https://www.discovery.com/science/First-Dinosaur-Fossil-Name
The Origins of Dragon Mythology. Retrieved from https://www.heritagedaily.com/2022/08/the-origins-of-dragons/144532#:~:text=The%20earliest%20draconic%20zoomorphic%20depictions,between%204700%20to%202900%20BC
The Real Story Behind Dinosaurs & Dragons. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/dinosaurs-and-dragons-the-real-story-1092002
Word ‘Dinosaur’ Invented. Retrieved from https://www.evolutionisamyth.com/biblical/word-dinosaur-invented-in-1842-by-richard-owen/