Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/April 1890/Dragons, Fabled and Real

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1149196Popular Science Monthly Volume 36 April 1890 — Dragons, Fabled and Real1890Maurice Maindron



THE geological age of reptiles was marked by various curious, seemingly only partly perfected forms, which appear to have passed away without leaving any permanent descent. To it belong the relics of those flying reptiles, the Rhamphorhynchus and the Pterodactyls. The type of the pterodactylean wing was not at all like that of the wings of birds, which were yet to come, and were beginning to appear when the reptilian era approached its close. The apparatus for flying was not formed by any essential modification of the limbs, but rather, like that of the bats, was constituted by a broad fold of the skin, attached to and sustained by the digits of the fore-limb. The last or outer digit, greatly elongated, formed a rigid side bordering and sustaining the parachute, which was further attached along the full length of the arm, and in the Rhamphorhynchus was continued to the tail. These animals also had a long tail ending in a membrane, sustained by rigid ribs, that served as a kind of rudder.

There were giants and dwarfs among the pterosaurians. Of the former were the Pteranodus, of the Kansas Cretaceous; and of the latter, little Jurassic pterodactyls, which were not larger than a lark.

The hieratic traditions of dragons appear at first sight to have been inspired* by the singular forms of these monsters; and it would be easy enough to suppose that the simple-minded figure-makers of the middle ages were acquainted with the pterosaurians, and patterned after them in sculpturing the dragons and griffins which they set up at church entrances. But they did not. Man's imagination is always capable of associating different forms into individuals, and even of inventing new forms. That the dragons of art were such inventions is proved by the awkward attachments which the artists affixed to their strange conceptions. Some of their creatures, if living, would have had a hard task to fly with the wings they gave them; and others would have been greatly embarrassed to make use of all the appendages with which a hand more lavish than wise had endowed them.

Movement by flying, the realization of which is still only a dream for man, has had a charm for the mystics of all ages. All religions concur in the common fancy of putting wings on the shoulders of their gods, genii, cherubim, angels, and seraphim. There were necessary for the transportation of such forms, for company and service, and to do battle for them, animals having forms likewise supernatural and agile; whence hippogriffs, chimæras, and dragons. St. Michael the archangel, with the wings of a bird, lies low and slays the fallen angel Lucifer, having bats' wings. Dragons have also had their contests with saints. St. George defeated a monstrous dragon; other holy personages followed his example, and the times became very hard for gargoyles, tarasques, and guivres. Many of the dragons were

Fig. 1.—Winged Dragons. (From a MS. of the Fourteenth Century. Book of the "Wonders of the World.")

slain, and an old monkish chronicle tells how the skin of one of them was hung from an arch in a church. The historians and wise men of antiquity did not forget to describe these monsters. Pliny speaks of a precious stone, called dracontias, which could only be found in the head of a dragon. St. Augustine informs us that "the dragon often rests in his den; but whenever he feels the moisture of the air he is able to rise on his wings and fly with great impetuosity." Other authors exhibit dragons ejecting fire and smoke from their burning throats, and enveloping in flames the audacious enemy who ventures to attack them. Such fables found credence as late as the sixteenth century. Even the grave Gessner believed in the existence of these creatures, and has said: "Numerous dragons are found in Ethiopia, a fact to be attributed to the heat that prevails in that country. They are also to be found in India and Libya, where they reach a length of fifteen feet, and the thickness of the trunk of a tree; but they are generally larger in India than in any other country. Two kinds of dragons are known: those that live in the mountainous country are large, alert, and swift, and have a crest, while those that live in marshy regions are sluggish and idle. The former have wings, and the latter have not; some have feet, and can get rapidly over the ground. Their vision is sharp, their hearing delicate. They rarely sleep, and for that reason the poets have made them guardians of treasures that man can not get. Near their abodes the air is noisome with their breath, and rings with their hissings."

Fig. 2.—Flying Dragons of Malaysia, Draco volans and fimbriatus. (From specimens brought home by M. Maurice Maindrou.)

These wonders, like other things of the kind, have had their day. The only dragons with which science now concerns itself are the little saurians, which are classed by some naturalists with the acrodont iguanans and by others with the agamians, and of some of which we give representations.

There live in the forests of India, the Malay Archipelago, and the Philippine Islands, lizards, whose speckled dress and odd forms have long made them objects of interest to collectors. They live exclusively on insects, which they hunt with extreme agility of pursuit along the trunks and among the branches of trees. In whatever spot they may be hiding, their variegated liveries of gray and brown, speckled with black, yellow, or green, mask them effectively and cause them to pass unperceived in the cracks or among the inequalities of the bark. Squatting under this cover, they await the coming of some insect within reach of them; or they may be seen running rapidly and suddenly covering considerable space, by a kind of flight, to place themselves upon another tree or fix themselves near a vine. Nature has been, in fact, pleased to facilitate the movements of these lively and graceful beings by an ingenious artifice. By the aid of their parachute, dragons can execute leaps in the air of considerable length, and pass from one tree to another as if by flying. But it must not be supposed that they can fly after the manner of birds. They can descend rapidly, describing a large parabola, sometimes almost a horizontal, but can not fly upward.

I have frequently observed these pretty little saurians in Java. The first time I saw one I succeeded in shooting him with a smallbored gun loaded with fine shot. When I picked my victim up I was somewhat surprised to find that I had a dragon; for its jerky and irregular flight along a large tree had caused me to suppose that it was some kind of a grasshopper or moth, which I could not get in any other way than by shooting.

The dragons, as Cuvier says, fly by means of their ribs. Their first six pairs of false ribs, instead of being attached to the sternum, are drawn out and prolonged, so as to constitute the framework of a kind of umbrella, the covering of which is formed of a wide membrane making a fold in the skin of the flanks. This membrane is independent of the limbs. When at rest, it is folded up along each flank; but it can be quickly unfolded and spread out in case of need. The name patagium has been given to it. The head and neck are ornamented with crests and dewlaps, often variegated with brilliantly defined colors; and a long tail gives them a singular gait which is not without grace.

The harmless little flying lizards inhabit forests and garden trees; and nothing is more amusing than to watch their manoeuvres, when, not aware that they are observed, they execute their gambols in the full flush of freedom. Running swiftly along the trees, stopping instantaneously, snapping up an insect or retiring disappointed after they have missed it; pursuing one another; inflating their dewlaps and depressing their crests when enraged, they fly away spasmodically to drop a few yards farther along, down upon another tree, along which they continue their evolutions. In some dragons the tympanum is visible, in others it is hidden by a fold of the skin. A special genus (Dranunculus) has been constituted for the latter, while the former compose the genus Draco. This genus is represented by six species, of which three inhabit the island of Java; one, recognizable by its vertical nostrils, is peculiar to continental India; the fifth is native to the island of Timor; and the sixth is found at Pulu Penang. The Dranunculus inhabits Amboyna in the Moluccas, Celebes, and the Philippine Islands.

The dragons are the only existing reptiles that possess organs of aerial locomotion. Other saurians have folds of skin along the flanks; but in no other of them is this disposition so developed as in a curious geckotian, the Ptychozoon homacephalum of Java and other Sunda Islands. A broad membrane extending from the temples to the tail, where it is divided into slit lobes, is broadened along the flanks. Without reaching the dimensions of the patagium of the dragons, or possessing its rigid supports, it represents a kind of parachute, the importance of which may have been augmented by long use; or else we may regard these extensions of the skin as survivals of a provision which sedentary or profoundly changed habits have rendered useless.

It may be added that the livery of the Ptychozoon is of such a nature as to assure it all the advantages of protective resemblance. The green color, yellowish on the upper side of the body, greenish along the flanks, varied with brown lines or transverse brown fasciae, constitutes a general tone which becomes, with wonderful ease, confounded with the bark and parasitic plants with which the trees are covered where they pass their lives.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from La Nature.

[To this account of these interesting animals we add a portrait of the frilled lizard (Chlamydosaurus Kingii), which possesses an appendage of different structure from the wings of the dragons, but at the first view reminding one of them. The frill, which is its conspicuous ornament, is covered with scales and is toothed on the edge. It does not come of full size till the animal is grown, and increases—according to Wood—in regular proportion to the age of the owner. In the young it does not even reach the base of the fore-limbs, while in the adult it extends well beyond them. M. F. Mocquard, who observed one of the animals during several weeks, is of the opinion that it serves the lizard as a kind of parachute, sustaining it during its

Fig. 3.-The Chlamydosaurus. (From a specimen in the Reptile Menagerie in the Museum of Natural History in Paris.)

leaps. It is essentially a tree-inhabiting animal, though it can run very swiftly along the ground. According to Captain Grey, who observed it in nature, "when not provoked or disturbed it moves quietly about, with its frill lying back in plaits upon the body; but it is very irascible, and directly it is frightened it elevates the frill or ruff and makes for a tree, where, if overtaken, it throws itself upon its stern, raising its head and chest as high as it can upon the fore-legs, then, doubling its tail underneath the body, and displaying a very formidable set of teeth from the concavity of its large frill, it boldly faces an opponent, biting furiously whatever is presented to it, and even venturing so far in its rage as to fairly make a charge at its enemy." M. Mocquard says it is quite inoffensive. It is nearly three feet in length, including its very long tail, is of a tawny color, with mottles on the back and blackish rings on the tail. The teeth on its fringe have white ends, and at a distance look like pearls. It belongs to the family of the agamians, and is represented only by a single species, in Australia.—Editor.]