The Dragon Research Collaborative was created in 2013 by Dr. Dorothybelle Poli, Dr. Lisa Stoneman, and a small collection of undergraduate students at Roanoke College. The group started as a research project aimed at finding a link between the ancient Lepidodendron plants and the lore of dragons. Since then, the DRC has grown to include a number of professors, students, alums, and community partners. The DRC’s original aim, a scientific approach to dragon lore, now stands as an example of a successful undergraduate transdisciplinary project that uses dragons as the hook to research across diverse disciplines: plant biology, history, literature, computer sciences, business, environmental science, and more.
More about Lepidodendron:
Plants are what started the Dragon Research Collaborative. The plant fossil, Lepidodendron, existed 300-250 million years ago, during the Carboniferous era, where swamps dominated the land and the continents were collected into one landmass known as Pangaea. During this era, Earth had a high oxygen content, allowing organisms to grow exceptionally large. Lepidodendron plants grew as tall as 100 feet and could span 8-14 feet wide. During this time, Dragonflies had wingspans of up to 6 feet.
Eventually, Pangaea broke apart, shifting the continents towards the format we know today. As this happened, the Lepidodendron forests broke apart, the oxygen content fell, and several species died off, leaving only their fossils behind.
The Lepidodendron, although not technically a tree, is often called the “scale tree”. As you can see below, the fossils show off the pattern of the leaves on the plant. They have a very distinct scale shape, some rounded, and others more diamond in shape.
*This drawing of one of the Virginia Museum of Natural History’s stored fossils was done by Travis Lumpkin
There’s more than their scaly appearance that links the Lepidodendron to dragons. Their root structures were partially above ground, and often featured the shape of a five-pronged claw. When a branch is lost, the remaining scar looks like a three-dimensional eye.
If you need even more of a relation between these plants and dragons, consider the Lycopodium that lives today. The Lycopodium is a relative of the Lepidodendron. They only grow 6-8 inches tall, not nearly as impressive as their ancestors, but they do have a unique dragon-like quality. The spores of the Lycopodium are explosive.
So imagine this: A plant as tall as 100 feet, with a base of 10 feet. Its branches look like claws, or sometimes eyes. It would possible burst into strings of flame at some point. If you were alive during those times, or you found fossils of these plants near their fire-spitting relatives, you would probably think giant, fire-breathing lizard. And that’s exactly what the Dragon Research Collaborative thought, too.
More about Folklore:
Dragons have been represented in the stories of humans from all over the globe for eons. From Akkadian writings, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, to modern day books and movies such as Game of Thrones and Eragon, fantastical stories have featured dragons.
Every culture has its own version. In China and South Africa, dragons are serpentine and don’t generally have wings, while in England and Iraq, the dragons are often thick and stocky winged beasts. The dragon’s appearance reflects the geographic region of the culture that defined them. For example, China is a country with several long and winding rivers; their dragons also are long and curvy. So the question becomes, how did nearly every culture create some version of a dragon even before trade was firmly established?
One answer could simply be that dragons are real! But there are other, more scientifically-based explanations. We begin by researching the written lore, analyses of folklorists, and related dragon products. Using textual clues from the lore as well as the cultural data available, the locations of lore are mapped as closely as possible.
Dragons are as prevalent in art and other material culture as they are in literature. European museums feature stocky, four-legged dragons fighting knights. In Asia, tea cups and kettles are decorated with ornate, elongated dragons. Some of the art is symbolic, such as the dragons on water containers. Some art is descriptive, following the narratives of dragons and knights in combat.
To put it all together and learn more about the DRC’s plant fossil-folklore hypothesis, read this.