One of the most enduring human myths is that of the dragon. Large predatory reptiles have a way of gripping the human imagination that other threats do not. Thousands of people die from car accidents or the like and these are often overlooked by news reports. If someone dies to a crocodile or alligator attack however, this is often news that is widely reported globally.

There is a visceral fear of such creatures that may well have an evolutionary origin. Our early hominid ancestors would have cohabited river plains with large crocodiles. Just as people in such areas (usually with the Nile or Estuarine crocodile) still suffer attacks today. Fear of large predatory reptiles would be a vital survival instinct. Likewise, stories of heroes vanquishing such creatures (the ancient Egyptian God Horus slaying crocodiles) or St George & the Dragon are enduring human popular memes. Crocodilians morph into vengeful dragons under the impetus of legends.

In Chinese culture the linkage to dragons is more benign. The Chinese alligator is much smaller than the Nile or estuarine crocodile (its 2 to 2.5m long as adults, the estuarine can grown up to 7). The Chinese alligator didn’t predate on people (ducks sometimes though :) ). The benign link is connected to the bellowing of male alligators in spring time. As the weather warmed up, the males would start vocalising to defend their territories & make their presence known to females. For an agricultural peoples, this harbinger of spring (and the end of winter) would have been welcome. Indeed, neolithic people in China made drums out of alligator skins to mimic this bellowing (and of course, bring about Spring)[1].

The evolution of the Chinese character for dragon can be traced from the earliest Shang depictions (very crocodilian in appearance) through.

Similarly, the literary connection between dragon and alligator has been maintained. THe dragon is sometimes called the jiao (alligator) or jiaolong (alligator-dragon). In present day China, locals still call the alligator the tu long (earth dragon, as a consequence of its burrowing habits) or he long (river dragon) [3]. (These literary & historical roots show that some creationist claims that dragons were dinosaurs cohabiting with people are wild fantasies).

[1]Thorbjarnarson, J. and Wang, X. (2010) The Chinese Alligator: Ecology, Behavior, Conservation and Culture. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.

[2] Ibid, p62

[3] Ibid, p63