The reconstructed skull of the dinosaur Dracorex hogwartsia
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Question: Were there any real dragons?
Answer: In the strictest sense, dragons are mythological creatures – there are no fire-breathing, flying reptiles in zoology. However, there are real animals that have interesting connections with dragons.
The Olm (Proteus anguinus) is a peculiar amphibian related to salamanders and axolotls. It is a long, thin, four-legged animal with a pointed snout, external gills that resemble budding wings and almost no skin pigment. Olms are also functionally blind, an adaptation to their life in subterranean caves in southern Europe.
Slovenian Folklore tells of torrential rain that washed up the babies of the dragons which lived in the underworld; the reality is more likely that rains flooded Slovenia's extensive network of subterranean caves (the Olm's natural habitat) and flushed the unwitting Olms to the surface where they likely writhed in the discomfort of relative light and dryness.
Olms have since become symbols of Slovenian natural history – at one point they were depicted on Slovenian currency. The Olm is now listed as endangered; if only it had the powers it was once thought to possess, it could reclaim its underground realm!
Of course, there are other animals we call dragons, but they are not the legendary fire-breathing animals of folklore. There are 'dragon lizards', more accurately called Agamid Lizards; Australia is home to many species, such as the familiar Bearded Dragon (Pogona barbata). Then, of course, there is the Victorian Marine Emblem, the Weedy Sea Dragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus), a rather odd-looking fish related to seahorses.
There is also a species of dinosaur called Dracorex hogwartsia; a name that translates literally as 'King dragon of Hogwarts', a reference to both this spiky-headed dinosaur's dragon-like good looks, and a whimsical reference to Harry Potter's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where a famous fictional character did battle with a dragon. But that's another story...