Exit the dragon
Thanks to Matthew Du Plessis for this entertaining and fascinating article. From the great dynastic dragons of China and Quetzlcoatl the feathered serpent god of Mesoamerica, to the wicked wyrm of St George and Druk the thunder lizard of Bhutan, the world has seen more than its fair share of dragons over the millennia.
Demanding virgin sacrifices here, creating bits of geography there, pruning down herds of tasty horses pretty much everywhere: it seems the ancient world was teeming with the ruddy things.
But not so much across the vastness of Africa where, apart from two notable exceptions, dragons have been conspicuous only by their absence from the stories of the tribes, nations and civilisations that have risen here, and fallen. And we’re not talking pterosaurs here. Oh, but no. It is widely accepted that dinosaurs were extinct long before humans arrived in their space ships (or evolved or whatever). And when they did get here, they met dragons. It’s in all the stories. Except the African ones. Mostly.
The near-complete absence of dragonism on this great continent of ours has been puzzling you too, no doubt. But rejoice, for I have unravelled the great mystery: There are no dragons in Africa because of … stripes!
As I said, there are two exceptions to the No Dragons in Africa rule. The first must surely be the Ouroboros, the great tail-eating serpent of the early creation myths of many cultures, but notably mentioned in the Book of the Dead, a funerary text of ancient Egypt, where great big scary monsters are almost to be expected.
Then there’s the Fon people of the Dahomey area of West Africa that now forms part of Benin, whose creator figure Nana-Buluku had a dragon companion named Aido-Hwedo — a rainbow serpent in the style of old Quetzlcoatl — which took part in the world-creation process by plopping out great big piles of poo that became mountains; and whose wriggling after Papa Nana left great furrows, which became the rivers of West Africa. Good old Aido-Hwedo.
Nada. Despite the presence of their preferred snack — the horse. Or, at least, the horse-shaped zebra.
But if horses are a dragon’s natural prey and there are zebra in these areas, then why no dragons?
How Zebra got his stripes
The Bushmen tell a story about Zebra, who was supposedly unmarked before the accident. Zebra was hanging around Baboon’s fireside when his coat caught fire. In a frantic bid to put the fire out, he rubbed his side and flanks frantically against a nearby tree, which is not only meant to explain the trademark “scorch marks” on a zebra’s coat, but also why the animals are always rubbing themselves up against trees in the bush. It can be a bit embarrassing to watch.
All right, that whole “Mr Baboon’s fire hazard” story might be fun to tell, but it’s hardly a scientific explanation — and our business here is straight-up science, not mythology — and also it doesn’t help explain the missing dragon problem. Or, come to think of it, why zebras really rub up against trees.
However, evolution, which is very sciencey, does explain all of these mysteries rather neatly.
I recently stumbled upon a curious bit of scientific research, you see, conjured up by evolutionary biologists, and published in the Royal Society’s Journal of Biology.
Their paper was about rats, not zebras, but a little bit of extrapolation never hurt anyone. Well, no one I can think of off-hand.
These were not just any old rats, mind you. No, we’re talking here of the maned rats of East Africa, which are a lot fluffier than the normal kind. They would almost be cute — were it not for the recently established fact that they are extremely bloody dangerous, on account of their stripes.
Found across Eastern and Southern Africa, the maned or crested rat Lophiomys imhausi is a jolly little fellow. Well, not jolly, as such. More … not jolly. But stripy, to be sure. Stripiness is a not uncommon adaptation in nature, found across genus and species, a physical adaptation that usually evolves in parallel with a defensive specialisation such as poison, or extreme smelliness, to warn predators of the danger the stripe-bearer poses, whether from nasty stings (bees, wasps and hornets), to ghastly odour attacks (skunk, zorilla, manky old deckchairs), or the mere fact of its being a grievously poisonous snack (zebra fish, any of dozens of South American dart frogs, etc).
The trouble is that while it might be a rat, imhausi is not especially smelly. And it produces no poison either. Ah, were you thinking of Batesian mimicry? Where harmless species have evolved markings or other physical manifestations similar to those of more dangerous critters? You wouldn’t be alone if you were. But you’d still be wrong.
After taking a closer look, the biologists noticed that while the crested rat is not naturally venomous … it can become venomous.
One man’s meat is another’s poison
Acquired toxicity isn’t entirely without precedent. The common hedgehog has been known to chew on poisonous toads and slather the resultant mixture of saliva and venom on to its spines, for example. I know: gross.
Instead of toads, crested rats make do with chewing on the ridiculously lethal branches and roots of the Acokanthera tree, against the toxin of which they’ve naturally developed an immunity. This is the stuff that Bushmen have been known to make deadly arrow poisons out of.
Then the rats coat their spongy-haired stripy bits with the stuff and go around trying to get dogs and lions and — oh I don’t know, hyena I suppose? — to try to bite them, after which their attackers fall into a frothing coma and die painfully. At least, that’s the plan. Results vary; survivors stay wary.
Consider, then, that the poison arrow tree grows in the same places that the stripy zebra roam.
Consider also that zebras like to rub up against trees.
Consider that any dragons who might have been passing through would have spotted the zebra from a mile off, because the stripes are not exactly camouflage, are they? I mean, unless the zebra are trying to hide in an abbey. Or on the set of March of the Penguins.
And consider that the zebra would have been gobbled up by such a dragon in but a single gulp. Om nom nom nom.
And now consider that there are no dragons in Africa.
It’s quite obvious in hindsight, but clearly Aido-Hwedo, that great serpent of the Fon, didn’t see it coming when he visited the east of the continent, or else he might have pooped himself the biggest flipping mountain you ever did see.
In completely unrelated news, I’m sending the Royal Society Journal of Geography my newly penned paper unravelling the mysterious origins of Mount Kilimanjaro. You’ll never guess how it happened.