How to write your dragon in an accurate way: a rage fueled essay by an environmental science major
first off @camille-the-space-ghost thanks for encouraging me
now, this is going to be two major parts (For now i might change it later on). 1. the environment, and 2. the dragon itself. also a lot of these tips can apply to fictional creatures in general, but they’re focused around dragons.
Part 1: environment
Now one of the main things you need to know about the world is that evolution works in niches. An evolutionary niche(Nee-sh) is what your creature specializes in/what makes it distinct. There aren’t any specific terms i’ve learned for them, but for example a rabbit would be a small burrowing ground-based herbivore that specializes in numbers over long lifespans. That sets it apart from say, squirrels, which are tree-dwelling.
There are two types of niches. Fundamental Niches is all the roles a creature COULD fill. in our case, a dragon could conceivably hunt most creatures in a standard irl forest. However, its Realized Niche would probably be large animals like wolves, deer, moose, etc, because while it COULD hunt smaller creatures, it would be less efficient at hunting them, so predators like foxes and wolves would take that up. The difference is a bit more nuanced than that, but it’s not too important. What is important to know is that two species cannot have stable populations while having the exact same niche. Their niches can overlap, but if they have the same niche, eventually one will overtake and outcompete the other. This is one of the reasons why invasive species suck so bad
So if your dragon is a purely water dragon, depending on it’s size, you may want to remove some species from it’s environment. if it’s whale sized, maybe orcas and toothed whales aren’t in that environment, because the dragon eats it’s food (baleen whales are chill though because they eat another food source). Food isn’t the only component of a niche, the available space can impact it too. for instance, if your dragon eats seeds and lives in tree trunks, it might be competing with trunk-dwelling birds for space, even though it eats seeds and those birds might eat insects. in this case, the birds might be chased out if the dragon population gets too big, but if they both stay stable, they could reasonably live in the same space since their food niche is separate.
1.5: environmental storytelling.
Most animals leave impacts in their environment. some are common, like poop or footprints or bite marks. Some are rarer like woodpecker holes or beaver dams. If you want your dragon to fit in, have it make an impact on the world around it. If your dragon is big, maybe it knocked down a tree or to when it was learning to fly. If your dragon is small, maybe it likes to collect a certain color of flower, so all those flowers are picked from its area. If you’re writing your dragon to be sapient (aka thinking like a human), you can have a lot of creativity with this. I reccomend looking up bowerbirds. they have hordes too, and you can get some ideas from them.
2. the dragon
the other half of this equation is the dragon itself. This will mostly focus on behavior and looks. This is important for artists and writers alike.
Behavior: we’re getting this out of the way now.If your dragons are not sapient, take your cues from nature. large
herbivores are constantly wary and are some of the most dangerous
beasts, since anything is a threat. Think hippo vs lion. Both are
terrifying but at least you’re kinda safe around a full lion. A full
hippo still thinks you’re a threat. If it’s a smaller animal, then they
might be skittish and flee quickly. Think flight vs fight priorities.
If a healthy adult could reasonably take it’s main predator, it’ll
fight you too. If a healthy adult could NOT take it’s main predator,
it’ll flee. (think about how in monster hunter, one of the most
dangerous creatures is a herbivore. aka diablos) Obviously this isn’t a
constant rule but it’s good enough for most situations. If your dragon
is not sapient, note that animals usually eat until they are full. they have no concept of rationing.
The reason that they dont exhaust their food source is that eventually
their prey gets hard enough to find, and then their populations drop,
and prey populations spike again. it’s a constant back and forth, it’s
rarely perfectly stable, but usually species can stay extant in the same
area without problems, because it’s also rare that animals kill after
Now if your dragon IS sapient, then you get to have fun! take your cues from human behavior (with some twists obviously).
Have individuals that have eaten all the food in their area foolishly
and are known to try and steal from other dragon’s hunting grounds. Have
dragons that have made alliances with humans in exchange for gold. Have
dragons that have pets because they think it’s cute, and the pets have
learned to tolerate them (this doesn’t have to be like how we bred dogs
to be tame. look at snakes, individual-wise their behavior is dictated
by how much handling they get at a young age. its about tolerance and a
lack of fear, not necessarily love). Have dragons that have favorite
fishing spots that they SWEAR just has better tasting fish.
also, just a general thing, learn what features are defensive vs offensive. For instance. poison is generally defensive, while venom is generally offensive. think about the situations where an animal would use these features.
This is one of the things that pisses me off about MH. Rathalos is a
hunter and doesn’t reasonably need venom spikes, fire and talons and
teeth work just fine. Rathian, on the other hand, has a completely
practical use for them, which is defending the nest. you don’t want to
blast the area around your nest with fire, and venom requires less
movement to use (using claws could crush an egg on accident)
part 2.5: looks
this is the fun part.TAKE YOUR CUES FROM NATURE. there
are animals in every kind of environment, Take inspiration from them.
MH does this pretty well, with animals like cephalos, a desert creature,
having large fins to cool off, and a relatively aerodynamic body to
move through sand.
So, here are some ideas to make your dragon look like it’s made to live in the environment. These are not set in stone, you can use a couple, or none at all.
White/blue belly scales to make it hard to spot in the sky. Feathers
for warmth,. Tails that can spread out for braking and control.
(Toothless did this right). look at hawks
Burrowers: animals that move and hunt through burrowing usually either use their claws to dig, or dig with noses (like hognoses!), look at burrowing snakes and lizards for this. They might also have better smell because they can’t see underground.
Forests: Stripes/spots for camouflage. If it perches on trees, give it bird feet. If it tends to
walk on the ground, give it thicker feet for stability. If it uses calls
to communicate over long distances, make them simple and LOUD. It’s
hard to have detail in sound across distance in forest, the leaves
absorb a lot of it. Give it sharp claws if it’s going up trees, as well
as a thinner body so the tree can handle it. If it’s a nighttime hunter,
give it better smell than sight.
Ocean: Movement is key, you want as aerodynamic a shape as possible. Horns are kinda eh here, fins are better because they can fold flat. Take inspiration from fish, eels, and sharks for movement types. You can also look at species like squids and octopi if you want something new. if you’re looking for camouflage in open ocean, many fish have light bellies and dark tops, so they blend in if looked at from the top or bottom. If you’re camouflaging in a reef, go fucking hog wild. If you want funky colors and shapes, you can look at cuttlefish, and octopi, masters of dynamic camouflage, color changing, and mimicry! If you want to make a species of dragon that swims in schools, give it a very thin stripe down the center! schools of fish actually use those to sense the movement of those around them. Communication in water is deep for long distances but high pitched for close distances. Think dolphins and whales.
Deep Underwater: many species are blind, and those that have vision can only see specific kinds of light that they use for communication. Bio luminescence is used to communicate. It’s hard to get really big in the depths, there’s massive amounts of pressure, low oxygen, and food is hard to come by. you can do it, but most large deep dwelling creatures are just super long. Now you can have MASSIVE carcasses down there, because that’s where everything falls when it dies! If they live down deep, they’ll probably die when brought to the surface, because everything kinda fails.
Caves: If your dragon just uses caves as a home at night, you might not need many adaptations to the environment. But if your dragon lives deep in dark caves, then you’re gonna have to adapt to a whole new kind of animal. Many cave-dwelling animals are pale and blind, because you don’t get light down there. most eat tiny creatures, and it’s hard to get big down there. similar adaptations to living deep underwater. Limited food and nutrients, no sunlight, etc.
Sandy deserts: cooling down is the biggest focus here. Big fins and ears are what many species use to cool down, circulating blood through them. You also have snakes and lizards that walk weird and “dance” to keep the sand off of most of their body at any time. If your dragon doesn’t have internal heating, they’ll likely burrow at night to conserve heat (sand stays warm for a while). Light colors are common here not just to camouflage, but also to reflect more sunlight. staying under cover is also very important, because of how open it is. Watering holes are peaceful areas, usually, though if your creature dwells in water that’s not gonna be the case (crocodiles)
The Poles: varies depending on if you’re in a tundra or a cold desert (like Antarctica), but some things stay constant. Many species build fat, for insulation. If your species doesn’t have fur, they better be thicc as hell, or I’ll be sad. Most species also have thick fur on their paws to stay warm, as well as claws so they can have traction in icy areas. You want extremities like ears and fins to be small, and shouldn’t exist without a use (Like fins could be used for communication and sensing motion in water, and ears are for hearing). limbs tend to be small and tight to the body to conserve heat. Think about how jackrabbits, a desert species, have long limbs and ears, while arctic bunnies are small and compact. Same with foxes. Tails are also included here, though again if it has a use it can stay (locomotion, and foxes use the tail to cover their face when they sleep). Snouts should also be small. Burrowing is also common here, because snow is a FANTASTIC insulator. if your species has a predator, it’s likely to have light colors because camoflauge is important here.
Alright, that’s all I can think of for now, thanks for reading! feel free to ask me for specifics if you need them, I’m always willing to help