Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Thar Be Dragons

There's an interesting essay on the Smithsonian's Dinosaur Tracking blog about CGI-based animal documentaries that cross the line from real biology into the realm of science fiction. Apparently one of the most egregious examples was an Animal Planet "documentary" on the biology of dragons.
Among the worst offenders was the 2004 “documentary” Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real, which investigated what the fire-breathing behemoths would be like if they had roamed the Earth. In addition to CGI animations, the program featured “footage” of “scientists” analyzing the gas content of a dragon’s organ and studying a printout of its DNA.
According to the Animal Planet web site, dragon anatomy and physiology "fantasy facts" were inspired by real animals.
Biologist Peter J. Hogarth was the technical expert for the program, and while answering questions in a live chat session gave a few more details about how they settled on platinum as the key ingredient for the dragons' fire breathing mechanism:
It's the setting fire to the dragon that's the problem. I think our ideas were hydrogen and air mixing and exploding, and the only way we could think of it to work was the powdered platinum. We wondered if they could strike a spark against their teeth. Large dinosaurs did ingest stones to help digest their food, but the stones couldn't be large enough. There was the possibility of electricity. There are animals that create amounts of electricity — electric eels and electric rays — but they couldn't generate a spark, so the platinum theory seemed to be the best.
It's a fun thought experiment, but pretty unlikely. In fact, from the descriptions it seems that the biological characteristics of dragons were selected more for their on-screen excitement than their actual biological plausibility. Definitely edutainment.

Not all fictional dragons are so biologically implausible. See, for example, James Maxey's explanation of how he designed realistic dragons for his novel Bitterwood.

For a free short story that features dragon paleontology, check out Robert Reed's "The Dragons of Summer Gulch".



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