Like many before me, I have always wondered what came first, the chicken or the egg? In terms of my preferred genre of literature, I have always wondered whether or not the fantastical beings of fantasy were the idyllic representations of the wild imagination of certain authors, or whether or not, in fact, they were based on features of antiquity?
I was first introduced to dinosaurs at the age of four. They were my first real passion, at least, from what I can remember. Back in the days of my youth, there were no movies such as Jurassic Park or the like. My parents started me out, as one might expect, on picture books with derivative illustrations based on what palaeontology imagined dinosaurs to have looked like. Ultimately, all they had to go on were fossilised remains – bones in the ground.
By the age of six, I had learned the names of many of my favourite dinosaurs in Latin and had graduated to looking at palaeontological textbooks filled with images of fossils. Naturally, my imagination ran riot trying to picture what these extinct creatures must have looked like. And I wasn't afraid to correct anyone who disagreed with my vision. Not even the curator of the Port Elizabeth Museum of natural history. My six year old self deemed it wholly appropriate to tell her that the Archaeopteryx painted on their wall was not red in plumage, but in fact, green.
As I got older, I was introduced to the myths and fables of many cultures. One particular fanciful creature took my interest, purely because it looks so much like one of the creatures from my dinosaur fascination. Dragons. According to our popular history books, dragons are two distinct cultural traditions: the European Dragon, derived from folklore and ultimately related to Greek and Middle Eastern mythologies, and the Chinese Dragon, with counterparts in Japan, Korea and other East Asian countries.
The two cultural paradigms could not have been more different. The European Dragon is a mean, firebreathing, greedy creature that looks like a cross between a snake and an alligator, but with wings. By contrast, the Chinese dragon is a symbol of good fortune; worshipped as the god of rain, it's considered to be the ancestor of the Emperor.
The question that kept bothering me was, what was the origin of the mythology? What came first, the Dragon or the story? It was an about this time in the conversation that I came across the remains of the creature which was to inspire me a conviction that, as much as palaeontologists believe otherwise, dragons may actually have existed. Meet Rhamphorynchus.
Rhamphorhynchus (/ˌræmfəˈrɪŋkəs/, from Ancient Greek rhamphos meaning "beak" and rhynchus meaning "snout") is a genus of long-tailed pterosaurs in the Jurassic period. Less specialized than contemporary, short-tailed pterodactyloid pterosaurs such as Pterodactylus, it had a long tail, stiffened with ligaments, which ended in a characteristic soft-tissue tail vane. The mouth of Rhamphorhynchus housed needle-like teeth, which were angled forward, with a curved, sharp, beak-like tip lacking teeth, indicating a diet mainly of fish; indeed, fish and cephalopod remains are frequently found in Rhamphorhynchus abdominal contents, as well as in their coprolites.
Diminutive compared to the dragons of literature, Ramphorynchus measured 1.26 metres long with a wingspan of 1.81 metres. It is the largest known non-pterodactyloid pterosaur that we know of and one of the largest pterosaurs known from the Jurassic period. My next question, of course, arose on the announcement that many dinosaurs evolved into birds. Knowing that birds have highly porous bones, I was curious – is it possible that a low-density skeleton may not become a fossil? And, if so, could it be that we are not seeing the entire picture? Could it be that, in fact, there may have existed dinosaurs akin to Ramphorynchus, but of a much bigger size?
This question may be purely academic, obviously, but I still had to know; what were the prerequisites for the skeletal remains of dinosaurs to become fossils? As it turns out, the most common process of fossilisation happens when an animal is buried by sediment, such as sand or silt, shortly after it dies. It's bones are protected from rotting by layers of sediment. As its body decomposes all the fleshy parts wear away and only the hard part, like bones, teeth, and horns, are left behind. The remains must initially escape destruction after death and the remains must be buried rapidly to stop decomposition. This does make the fossil record biased because animals with soft bodies are less likely to form fossils.
So, the question remains – were dragons real? We may never know. The question then bakes my noodle, at the end of the day, is; how did these creatures become characters within our mythologies to begin with? If anyone reading this piece is a palaeontologist with more light to shed on this question, I would welcome their input. Me, myself, and I want to know.