Sunday, January 27, 2008
The Natural History and Evolutionary Biology of Dragons
OK, this is my new guilty pleasure: An Animal Planet show from 2005 called Dragon's World: Fantasy Made Real. We got it from Netflix, and I honestly think I enjoyed it as much as or more than the Budza. A rogue paleontologist finds a frozen carcass that may or may not be a dragon, and with his reputation in tatters he goes off in a helicopter (!) to try and get more evidence for his dragon theory. Not a very promising beginning, but lo and behold the writers actually manage to weave in a lot of bona fide scientific detail: these dragons have breeding colors and use fire for sexual display as well as to subdue prey; they have to patrol their territories against competitors for food and mates; a male is shown blowing on his mate's eggs to cool them, so they will develop into daughters and not sons who might turn into rivals. In this imagining, dragons escaped the KT asteroid by taking to the seas, and then radiating into niches around the globe. A particularly nice segment shows a Chinese forest dragon stalking prey through a bamboo thicket. Of course, there is a pounding rock soundtrack and some scenery chewing by the lead paleontologist, but not enough to really derail this for the true dragon and natural history enthusiast.
The writers and producers availed themselves of science consultant Peter J.Hogarth of the University of York, and it shows. Hogarth has published on various aspects of mangroves and the family lives of fish and crabs, but his interests seem to include the folklore or mythological fauna. If anyone were going to be Walker of Walker's Dragons of the Old World, I think it would be Professor Hogarth.
Throughout the program I kept thinking about a favorite book of mine, The Flight of Dragons, by Peter Dickinson. The Animal Planet mockumentary seems to be a case of convergent evolution, in terms of the biologically plausible details of how such unaerodynamic creatures as dragons could fly or how they could breathe fire. That book was published by Pierrot in 1979 and then was maddeningly out of print for nearly 20 years until Overlook Press rereleased it in 1998, when I finally got my own copy. The fantasy art by Wayne Anderson is High Seventies: straight out of Heavy Metal magazine or the album art of a certain kind of trippy folk rock band, like Fairport Convention.
It turns out Dickinson at 80 plus is still going strong, has a website, and there you can read all about how The Flight of Dragons came to be. Like so many things worth knowing about, it had its beginnings on a train.
And--oh, my God!--he's written mysteries. I knew that, but never seem to remember when I'm frozen in indecision, staring at the mystery shelves in a library or bookstore (you know the feeling: you're in a restaurant with an enormous menu, and you have no idea what you're in the mood for). Now I know what I'm doing for the next decade or so, readingwise. I mean, what's not to like about a book that has a title like The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest, and has as its plot the remnants of a primitive New Guinea tribe and a female anthropologist keeping house in West London?