The best-known of the true dragons, the European Dragon can be divided into three subspecies1 which differ primarily in colour – the Arctic or Scandinavian dragon, which can be found in Northern Europe and occasionally ranges as far east as Siberia; the Welsh Dragon, which is native to the British Isles; and the Alpine Dragon, which is found not just in the Alps but also further east in the Carpathian Mountains.
The European Dragon can grow up to 20m long from nose to tail tip (about 64ft), though the average size of a mature adult is closer to 17.5m (about 57ft). They usually have quite a slim body, not all that bulky as you might expect for a dragon, though many heraldic dragons actually represent this quite well. The tail is usually about 2-3m by itself, and their neck, measured from shoulder to chin, is about 40cm, with the head itself adding about another 80cm. Their body is dwarfed by their wings, which have an average span of 33m when fully spread, and a breadth of at least 12m. Some larger specimens have been seen with a wingspan of 40m or more.
All European dragons have a pair of horns extending from their brows, with a hard, bony ridge marking the back of the head just behind the horns. Short, rigid dorsal spines are spaced out from their neck all the way down to the tail, coming to an end around halfway along the tail. The spines are spaced most closely on the neck and tail, but on the back they are far enough apart for an average human to slip between them and sit astride the dragon’s back.
A dragon while walking stands about 4-5m in height, with its wings only partially folded, making them appear much smaller than they really are. Even so, the folded wings are each almost as big as the dragon’s main body.
The European dragon is covered in tough, hard scales on its back, sides, neck, head, legs, and tail. The scales on the belly are softer, though they still provide quite a decent defence. A dragon’s fore-claws have a sort of opposable thumb, allowing them to grasp and manipulate objects.
The Arctic or Scandinavian dragon is white in colour, allowing them to blend in easily with the snow. They are rarely seen in the summer when the snow melts, preferring to retreat to the far north or high mountains where the snow stays all year round. Arctic dragons have a ridged, bony club at the tip of their tail, and their horns are curled like those of a ram.
The Welsh Dragon is dark crimson in colour, with the softer scales of its belly being sort of dirty yellow. It has a sharp triangular protrusion on the tip of its tail. Their horns are straight and come to a sharp point.
The Alpine Dragon is deep green in colour, with its underbelly a very pale blue, almost white. Its horns curve gently outward and do not have a sharp point, and the tip of its tail is slightly flattened, with a series of five bony protrusions poking out the sides and almost resembling feathers.
European dragons lay eggs in clutches of three to six, usually in deep, warm caves. The mother watches her eggs until they hatch, only venturing out occasionally to hunt. The eggs usually take three to five months to hatch.
Upon hatching, the infant dragons, often called “wyrmlings”, are about a metre long with underdeveloped wings. For three or four years, they are entirely dependent on their mother, who feeds them at first on food that she has already chewed for them before eventually moving them to more solid foods
They continue to remain with the mother until at least seven or eight years of age, though. Some have been known to stay with their mothers for as long as thirteen years. During this time, they start to figure out how to fly, and their mother teaches them how to hunt. Often, some of the wyrmlings fall prey to disease or predators.
By age twelve, a dragon has reached about one-third of their full adult size, and most of the time have already left the nest and struck out on their own. During this stage, dragons often traven in small groups of two or three individuals. Occasionally, an entire clutch might remain together.
Dragons grow continuously until reaching their full adult size, which can happen as early as age thirty or as late as forty-five. Though they are able to mate starting from around age 20, it’s not common for juveniles to do so.
Once they reach adulthood, dragons become solitary creatures, except during the mating season which usually falls around the end of August. A dragon can mate as much as once every two to three years.
Dragons are long-lived creatures, with some reported as living over a hundred years, though confirmed ages hover around eighty to ninety years.
Dragons have a fondness for meat, with a preference for sheep, goats, horses, or deer, but they will also eat fruit and vegetation, especially when game is scarce. In fact, they are capable of digesting pretty much anything a human can.
Dragons are also known to chew on certain types of rocks, grinding them to gravel with their teeth. The exact purpose of this is uncertain – it could be for essential minerals not found in their normal diet, a fuel supply for their fiery breath, or even a digestive aid similar to a bird’s crop.
Like all the true dragons, the European dragon is capable of breathing fire. Its breath is by far the most impressive of all the dragons – a gout of dragonfire can easily spread three metres in front of them and has been known to reach even further, and can get hot enough to melt lead. The downside of this power is that an adult cannot produce more then seven or eight gouts of flame before their internal fuel reserves are exhausted (juveniles can typically only produce half as many). As a result, they tend to use their fire sparingly.
Society and Culture
The European dragon is largely solitary, coming together only during the mating season for their often-spectacular mating flights around mountain peaks. However, they do not often fight amongst themselves, preferring to negotiate through diplomacy in the event of territory disputes.
European dragons usually claim occupation of a mountain cave as their home and lair, and do not stray far from it. They sleep in their cave, and bring all their kills home to it before eating.
Dragons also have a fondness for shiny objects, including gold, silver, and jewels, and have sometimes been known to make off with them. While massive treasure hoards such as those of myth are rare among their kind, many dragons do have a small collection of valuables stashed away in their lair. Dragons treat copper pyrites the same as true gold, however, so it’s always possible that a dragon’s stash will turn out not to be worth much after all.
Though on occasion a dragon has gotten a liking for human flesh and started attacking villages without provocation, most of the time they only attack if injured by villagers angry at missing livestock. Dragons generally do not kidnap humans unless they need a negotiating card to keep the other humans off their backs.
The vocalizations of the European dragon are bird-like, a fact that startles many people. Though they are capable of a roar which befits a dragon of their size and stature, you’re far more likely to hear them chirping and trilling. These vocalizations are sophisticated enough to be called a language. Occasionally, dragons have learned the language of the local humans and managed to contort their vocal tract into producing sounds recognizable as said language, though they have difficulty with hard consonants.
The Ministry of Magic classifies the European Dragon as an endangered species, with the Welsh subspecies being critically endangered. Ministry estimates place the Welsh dragon population at under 100 mature individuals as of 2008, split between Wales and the Scottish Highlands. Rumours of sightings in Ireland have not been well-substantiated.
The Alpine dragon is more numerous, with Ministry estimates placing their population at around 1,500 mature individuals spread out across their range as of 2008. In 2003, it was estimated at around 6,000, a decline of 25%. The reasons for the decline are not well-understood, and may actually be related in part to the Ministry’s efforts to conceal the population from the general public. Other factors include a scarcity of food in some areas or being hunted by humans.
The Scandinavian Dragon is the most numerous at an estimated 12,000 mature individuals, though the population is fragmented into three distinct areas – Scandinavia (mainly Sweden and Finland), Greenland (only a small population), and around the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea.
Dragons have long had a fraught relationship with humans, due to their propensity for carrying off livestock and retaliating against a village if injured. Several prominent dragonslayers have made history, including but not limited to Beowulf, and some of these have taken down more than one dragon.
There have been several famous dragons throughout history. Dragons do not have names that humans can pronounce, so any names given to them are human in origin. Some well-known ones include:
- King Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, witnessed a rare fight between a Welsh dragon (often called Cymru, after the country) and a Scandinavian dragon in the mountains of Wales. It’s unknown why the Scandinavian dragon had ventured so far south or what prompted the altercation.
- Ladon, an Alpine dragon who once guarded the Gardens of the Hesperides until he was slain by Hercules. (The Alpine dragon originally had a much wider range and could be found throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa.)
- Fafnir, born a dwarf but later turned into a dragon by a curse. Slain by the hero Sigurd.
- The Tarasque, an Alpine dragon who was slain by a woman who claimed to be Saint Martha – she lured it close to the town with her magic, where the king’s men slaughtered it.
- The dragon who Beowulf slew was one of the rare cases of a dragon with a vast horde. She was a Scandinavian dragon.
- Saint George slew an Alpine dragon who had gained a taste for human flesh and demanded sacrifices from the neighbouring villages.
There is some dispute about whether they’re a single subspecies or three species in the same genus. ↩