Hidden Nature: Here be dragons?

Continuing the Heritage Open Day series and its theme of Hidden Nature, we take a look at dragons!

Hidden within The Royal Pavilion’s elaborate interiors are a huge variety of animals and mythical beasts. Perhaps its most famous beastly residents are the hundreds of dragons hidden in the wallpaper, on the tops of chandeliers and even crawling up the fireplaces. But is there any evidence to prove that dragons really existed? We explored our natural science collections to find out.

Detail of the wallpaper in the Red Drawing Room, Royal Pavilion

Dragon Tails

Hidden behind the scenes at the Booth Museum of Natural History are objects which some have said are the remains of dragons. This can’t be right, can it? And if not, who or what left these objects behind?

Object 1: A dragon’s tongue?

Dragon’s tongue?

In Europe during the middle ages, fossils like this one were widely accepted to be the petrified tip of a dragon’s tongue, and were given the nickname “tongue stones”. A dragons tongue would be lost through combat or death and would become petrified after leaving it’s body, turning from flesh to stone. This theory was common until it was debunked in the 17th century. But what really left this ‘tongue’ behind?

It’s on the tip of my tongue…

If we look at this photo the correct way up, we might be able to get closer to the tooth. Yes, this is a fossilised tooth! A tooth of an ancient apex predator; this predator had the strongest bite of any known living animal, feasted on whales and grew to around 15 meters long. This tooth belonged to…

Megalodon (Odotus megalodon)!

Megalodon, artists interpretation by Karen Carr CC BY 3.0

We’ve got bigger fish to fry

Odotus megalodon lived in warm seas between 20 million years ago and 3.6 million years ago. Their huge serrated teeth would have been perfect for slicing into huge prey including whales and other sharks. The name Megalodon literally means ‘giant tooth’; the largest fossil teeth that have been found are around 18cm long, which is around 3 times the size of the largest teeth of a Great White Shark!

Contrary to many reconstructions, the Megalodon didn’t look like colossal version of a Great White Shark. Megalodons had a much shorter nose and flatter jaw than the Great White Shark; it also had extra-long pectoral fins to support its weight. Megalodons were not the ancestors of the Great White Shark and they may even have been in direct competition with them!

Object 2: Dragon scales?

Fossilised dragon scales?

It’s easy to see how scaled fossils like these were presumed to be the skin of giant lizards. A larger version of this fossil was exhibited in 1851 in Wales and advertised as a “fossil of a giant serpent of immense strength”.

This fossil may not have come from a dragon or a serpent, but it certainly came from a giant — some individuals of this species measured up to 30 metres (100ft). These lifeforms were also covered in densely packed scales and inhabited low-lying swampy areas. But don’t worry — it’s bark was bigger than it’s bite…what could this scaly giant be? Have a quick think before you scroll down to reveal the answer…

The scale trees (Lepidodendron)

You’re barking up the wrong tree!

The diamond-shaped “scale” shapes on this fossil were left by the leaves on the tree as the fell from the trunks and stems. Scale trees grew in the Carboniferous 360 – 290 million years ago and were one of the most abundant trees of this period. Their trunk was green in colour, grew barely any branches and reached up to 1.8metres (6ft) in diameter. Only living around 10-15 years, they grew rapidly and reproduced only once towards the end of their lifetime by producing spores.

Object 3: Dragon teeth?

Close up of teeth from Mosasaur, Mosasaurus gracilis, jaw
Arturo de Frias Marques CC BY-SA 4.0 (Varanus komodoensis) Head portrait of a Komodo dragon, tongue out, tasting the air. Komodo, Indonesia

If you thought these fossilised teeth were from a ferocious dragon then you wouldn’t be that far from the truth. These teeth belonged to an ancestor of a living dragon; the Komodo dragon.

The Komodo dragon’s ancestors lived in the oceans around 65 million years ago and are nick-named by scientists as the T.Rex of the sea.

So, have we finally found our dragon or, at least, a giant sea serpent? Let’s find out who this tooth belonged to…

 

A Mosasaur (Mosasaurus)!

 

Marc from A Small Eastern Seaboard Island, United States / CC BY-SA 2.0

That’s the tooth!

Mosasaurs were clearly not dragons or even dinosaurs, but aquatic reptiles belonging to a group know as the squamates. There has been recent evidence to suggest that these animals were highly aggressive towards one-another causing an extreme amount of damage in vicious battles. Most species were around the size of a small dolphin, but the largest species was Tylosaurus. This species reached a colossal 15 meters (50ft) in length!

In the Hollywood blockbuster Jurassic World, Tylosaurus was one of the stars of the show. However, the filmmakers definitely beefed Tylosaurus up in this movie – some have estimated the movie version to be around twice the size of any known specimen –  well, I guess that’s showbiz for you! 

Mosasaur jaw from the Booth Museum used to animate the Mosasaur in Jurassic World Photo by Bob Foremam

Despite the bloated appearance of our reptilian friend in Jurassic World, the animators did use a rather special specimen from the Booth Museum to help create it. Take a look at the clip below to see our Mosasaur in action!

Can’t start a fire?

Unfortunately, we haven’t found evidence for real dragons, but I hope you agree, there is still an amazing array of life that has lived and still lives on our planet. That said, I will leave you with the wise words of Jeff Goldblum…

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Grace Brindle, Collections Assistant

 

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