Rob Colautti, a post-doctoral researcher in evolutionary ecology, turned his attention to dragons in 2009 as a diversion from his PhD thesis. Colautti wanted to produce a dragon phylogeny — a graph detailing the hypothetical evolutionary relationships between different organisms.
“For me it was just kind of like a fun little project to see what could happen if we applied these evolutionary methods to imaginary creatures like dragons,” Colautti said.
But where biologists might use DNA to track the connections, Colautti faced a problem: “I wasn't able to get hold of any dragon DNA.”
Instead, he collected images of 76 drawings, paintings, sketches, prints and sculptures of dragons dating from the dark ages until about 1920. The works include depictions of both Asian and European dragons and paintings from artists like Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael.
Colautti said he identified 27 distinct traits.
“I came up with a bunch of traits that these things had in common, but that [also] differed,” he said. “Things like, how long was their body; how long was their tail; what kind of skin texture did they have; whether they had two legs or four legs; whether they had wings or not, and then when you get enough of these traits together you start to see things clumping together based on these traits.”
After compiling all his dragon data in 2009, Colautti shelved the project, but then came back to it recently.
He decided to use his data to draw up a dragon phylogeny, which is depicted as a circle with a variety of mythical creatures radiating from the perimeter. On one side sits a typical Asian dragon and on the other a European-style dragon shown in battle with St. George.
Colautti said his study of subject has revealed that Asian dragons are no more related to European dragons than unicorns.
“There's actually a very interesting difference between these dragons, which you might think of as something that's intelligently designed as opposed to an organism in nature that evolved,” he said. "They just have a whole bunch of traits that are thrown together. So, [it depends on] the imagination of a person who portrayed a particular type of skin or tail length."
If dragons did share a common ancestor, Colautti has concluded, it would be a type of fish.
He decided the finished family tree would make a great T-shirt design and entered into a contest on a website that will turn Colautti's dragon phylogeny into a T-shirt if enough people vote for his design.
The project started attracting online attention after it drew the attention of io9.com, an online publication that covers science and science fiction. Colautti says he believes the relationship between the two may explain fascination with the origins of dragons.
"There's so much fascinating diversity, even among the plants and insects in our own backyards," he said. "I guess it's just human nature to take that for granted and focus on the fantasy that we can't have. So, why the fascination with a phylogeny of dragons specifically? I think maybe it's because by incorporating science into fantasy it somehow makes that fantasy more real."