Real Dragons in Nature



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The Komodo dragon’s forked tongue can sense prey, which experience a particularly brutal death.

Photograph by Stefano Unterthiner, National Geographic Creative

There be dragons—and not just on Game of Thrones.

In honor of Chinese New Year, a festival that features mythical dragons, Weird Animal Question of the Week wondered: “What are some of the most dazzling dragons in real life?”

Ruby Seadragon

We wear red when we want to stand out, but for the ruby seadragon, “it’s a camouflaging tactic at depth,” says Josefin Stiller, who helped film the dragon for the first time recently in western Australia. (Related: “Rare Ruby Seadragon Caught on Video for the First Time.”)

Watch: First Look: Rare Ruby Seadragon Filmed in the Wild

Because “red is the first color of the spectrum that gets filtered out,” underwater, these fish appear black, helping them hide from predators, says Stiller, a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego.

Their masquerade is likely why they don’t have the same leaf-shaped camouflage appendages the leafy seadragon and common or weedy seadragon blend in.

Also unlike their cousins, ruby seadragon males carry their babies—but under their tails, not in their bellies.

Blue Dragon Sea Slug

This gorgeous little nudibranch of just 2.3 inches long is packed with surprises.

“They spend their lives floating on the ocean surface upside-down, and swallow air to help them stay afloat,” Ángel Valdés, a sea slug specialist at California State Polytechnic University, says by email.

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The blue dragon sea slug steals stinging cells from Portuguese man-of-wars to defend itself.

Photograph by Ivan Kuzmin, Alamy

This keeps them close to their prey, including the famously venomous Portuguese man-of-war. (See National Geographic magazine’s incredible photos of nudbranchs.)

The blue dragon steals stinging cells, called nematocysts, from man-of-wars, storing them in specialized organs in the tips of their cerata, or wings—which may explain their name.

If threatened by a predator, the nudibranch will discharge the stinging cells, says Valdés.

Pink Dragon Millipede

Wearing pink doesn’t mean you’re a pushover.

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The shocking pink dragon millipede may not breathe fire, but it releases cyanide.

Photograph by Thailand Wildlife, Alamy

Scientists discovered the pink dragon millipede in 2007 in the Greater Mekong region of Thailand. (Related photos: “Cyanide Millipede, Huge Spider Among New Species.”)

Thought to live only in the limestone caves of that region, the colorful arthropod defends itself by producing cyanide. Not exactly fire, but close.

Komodo Dragon

This one could actually eat you.

The 300-plus-pound Komodo dragon kills prey with a combination of nasty venom and lacerating teeth that dispatch that venom speedily into the victim’s flesh. (Related: “Komodo Dragon Kills with Venom, Researchers Find.”)

There is one animal brave enough to take them on.

“The primary predators of Komodo dragons are other Komodo dragons,” Robert Espinoza of the California State University, Northridge, says by email.

Because adults eat juveniles, very few youngsters are seen out in the open. Smart kids.

Black Dragonfish

This wicked Alien-like beauty was once an awkward teenager. In its larval stage, the female black dragonfish has eyestalks that can reach half its body length and allow her to see farther in the deep. As she grows, her eyes recede, and she blossoms huge teeth; rows of light-producing organs lining the body; and a barbel, a whisker-like chin projection.

The males, in comparison, are tiny and toothless, living only long enough to mate.

Flying Dragons

These lizards of Southeast Asia and India are quite well camouflaged—until they spread their “wings.”

Flying dragons glide through the treetops using their colorful patagia, wing-like structures supported by their ribs, Jim McGuire a flying lizard specialist at the University of California at Berkeley, says by email.

World’s Weirdest: Flying Dragon

It’s no mythical monster. When threatened, this real-life lizard can glide half the length of a football field … and still swoop in for a perfect landing.

Each of the 50 known flying dragon species has patagia with different hues and patterns.

Used to commute and escape predators, patagia also help male flying dragons reptiles show off to females during courtship displays.

Have a question about the weird and wild world? Tweet me, leave me a note in the comments, or find me on Facebook. Weird Animal Question of the Week answers your questions every Saturday.



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