I recently watched this video by AronRa. Sometimes, to entertain myself, I sit down and watch his videos pertaining to evolution. I’ve always found palaeontology fascinating, and not just because I like dinosaurs. In fact, dinosaurs aren’t even my favourite. However, this particular passage does contain a bit about dinosaurs, and not much about any other creature that actually existed. I even based the title of this post on the title of the video I referenced. However, I chose to combine “dragon” with the more modern term “phylogeny,” rather than with the older “taxonomy,” for reasons that should become clear to anyone who reads this and knows the difference between the two.
Regrettably, I have no pictures to show for this one, and I really ought to. Perhaps I will post a supplement to this later, with all the pictures that will make this easier to understand. Anyway, let’s dive into this. I warn you, unlike the typical fantasy writer, I have given a lot of thought to the evolution of life on my made-up world. No magic or gods in this creation myth, just nature.
Given that Varanganska has nearly twice the gravity of Earth, the fish that crawled out of the oceans need the help of every bit of flesh. Thus, they grew three pairs of limbs, creating a hexapod paradigm. Since much of the creature’s mass was forward, the extra support was doubled at the front end, rather than at both, hence the hexapod paradigm instead of an octopod one. Smaller animals found the extra pair of limbs hindering, so they became dormant in all but the largest species in later periods. Thus, there are suppressed hexapods and expressed hexapods. Through convergent evolution, both groups evolved to have analogs in each other, adapting either thicker limbs or more of them to hold up the same body. An example of this is the similarity between the dostrop and the sleipnus, both of which are analogs of the horse. The former is a suppressed hexapod with very stocky limbs, and the latter is an expressed hexapod with more slender limbs. Over tens of millions of years, limbs came and went depending on the animals’ needs. This is most apparent with the evolution of Varanganskan dinosaurs.
Dinosaurs evolved from similar ancestors on Varanganska as here on Earth, however most creatures in both groups had six legs. However, this is at the point that the similarities between the two evolutionary pathways begin to disappear. Around the same time that the first proto-feathers appeared, the first group of dragons, the flightless dragons or “great serpents” break off from dinosaurs. Today, flightless dragons have each pair of legs (or flippers, as some are aquatic) evenly-spaced over the length of their bodies. The earliest specimens had only down feathers, and so appear to be covered in fur, but most modern species are covered in contour feathers, which, from a distance, resemble scales.
The second group of dragons broke off during a time when both lizards and smaller dinosaurs started to glide between trees. Both wyverns and membrane-wing, more commonly called leatherwing, dragons appear. In addition to the number of limbs, wyverns are actually reptiles, and not descended from dinosaurs as dragons are. Leatherwing dragons also have sparse feathers, whereas wyverns have none. Flight feathers had not yet appeared when leatherwing dragons broke away from dinosaurs, which is why they look more like the unrelated wyverns than other flying dragons.
The third group of dragons constitutes the last split of dinosaurs, which occurred shortly after the appearance of asymmetrical flight feathers. It is at the point of their origin that dinosaurs begin to differentiate between dragons and birds. Their common ancestor is an expressed hexapod that otherwise looked identical to Archaeopteryx. By modern definition, the Archaeopteryx-like creature would be called a feathered dragon, rather than a bird, but it is most certainly an ancestor to both. Modern feathered dragons all have avian wings, but with protruding claws, as well as long tails that are more lizard-like than bird-like, but can still manipulate flight feathers with them. Another difference between feathered dragons and birds is the means of reproduction: birds are typically oviparous, whereas all three types of dragons are typically viviparous. In other words, the majority of Varanganskan dragons do not lay eggs.
There are several exceptions to the last rule, but the most notable one is the Night’s Dragon, which is not a true dragon by any means, and, as a genetically engineered creature, does not fit into any clade. Even by conventional taxonomy, there are too many characteristics taken from totally unrelated clades to make classifying the Night’s Dragon even possible. These I will arrange in the order of most subtle to most radical. First off, though the Night’s Dragon has the talons of a raptor (referring to both dinosaurs and modern birds of the type), with deeply-curved claws the size of meathooks, no raptor has even been known to have more than four toes; the Night’s Dragon has five, the outer two of which can pivot to change the configuration from 4:1 to 2:3. Second, the Night’s Dragon has fully fused phalanges in the wings (unique to birds), and slit pupils (absent in birds) in its tetrachromatic (absent in dragons) eyes. The Night’s Dragon arguably has better vision than any bird or true dragon, especially at night, when only owls boast such great eyesight. Third, and this is somewhat related to the feet, the Night’s Dragon is bipedal, in spite of being an expressed hexapod, and its arms terminate in five-fingered hands with opposable thumbs, a feature unique to mammals. Fourth, the Night’s Dragon can deliver venom by means of chelicerated fangs that fold up and retract inside its mouth. Chelicerata is its own, totally unrelated clade, a subphylum of arthropods separate from both crustaceans and insects, but which includes arachnids. Though vipers can have retractable fangs, none of them have chelicerae, and furthermore, no vertibrate has venom that can match the Night’s Dragon for potency, as it is the same cocktail of neurotoxins and proteolytic enzymes typically found in spider venom.
Varanganskan dragons come in all shapes and sizes, and, while some have lost legs over the years, they are still distinguishable from wyverns by both their internal anatomy and genetics. As I mentioned, within the lore of this particular fantasy world, wyverns are reptiles, and dragons are actually dinosaurs, as birds are. None of them breathe fire, but that did not diminish their usefullness as beasts of war, most notably by the dark elf dragonlords. That being said, not all species of dragons can be tamed, or even trained. Furthermore, unless you first have contact with the creature when it is very young, you would have no hope of getting it to do anything other than kill you.
One unusual dragon is the “winged lion,” a feathered dragon whose body is covered in down feathers, thus resembling fur. The “mane” is comprised of both feathers and horns, somewhat resembling a cat’s ears. Aside from this “mane” the creature looks little like a lion, but for many, it is the simplest way to describe the creature. Another unusual specimen is sometimes called a manticore, though this leatherwing is far uglier, possessing frills and horns arrayed around its head to, again, resemble a lion’s mane if you squint at it the right way. Most dragons, however, are simply expressed hexapod versions of extant birds, or otherwise analogs of fairly small creatures, with nearly all the big ones having gone extinct by the time that The Nine Empires takes place. Sorry to disappoint, but this is a steampunk story, after all.