If Dragons Were Real, Could They Breathe Fire?

Not all dragons are made the same. Western dragons tend to be apocalyptic serpents that threaten to scorch anyone who happens upon the golden cache in their lairs, while Eastern dragons crackle with power gifted by the divine. While their powers may vary, their temperaments do not.

As the Monster Science video below explains, dragons tend to be a greedy, foul-tempered lot with flaming breath. Sure, a chosen few are tamed by fair maidens or innocent adolescents, but most? They’d just as soon cook you as be your pet.

What makes dragons able to command fire in a way that the rest of the natural world cannot? One theory playfully posited by paleontologist Henry Gee contends dragons harness oxygen, then create a spark — either with ingested rocks in their gizzard, or mineral coatings on their teeth — and create a high-pressure blast fueled by diethyl ether, a colorless, flammable organic compound.

The ability to master the flame made people commanders of the animal kingdom, keepers of glowing campfires and sizzling foodstuffs. But for the dragon, flames are an innate ability that people simply cannot replicate.

For clues to a dragon’s ability to breath fire, we turn to the real-life bombardier beetle. (Because who really wants to inspect a dragon’s throat?) The bombardier beetle is a real-life expert at explosive spewing. The half-inch long beetle produces hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinones that are stored in separate reservoirs. When the beetle becomes threatened, it releases the hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinones into a special reaction chamber where secreted enzymes quickly break down the hydrogen peroxide and release free oxygen molecules that oxidate the hydroquinones.

The result? A chemical reaction that makes enough heat to bring the entire mixture nearly to boiling. This extremely heated mixture is then explosively sprayed on the beetle’s attacker. Ouch!

Like the bombardier beetle’s defense mechanism, a dragon’s fire proves useful in a variety of situations. Not only does it roast a dragon’s dinner — and the occasional knight — but dragon fire could be the spark that clears landscapes and readies them for new growth. 

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