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October 10, 2018

Summer may have already given way to Autumn, but the Virginia Museum of Natural History recently headed things back up - with a little bit of help from fire-breathing dragons.  On Saturday, October 20 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., the museum hosted the Dragon Festival, offering visitors a Renaissance Fair atmosphere where they explored the lore of dragons, the impact these creatures have had on cultures across the globe, and the science behind the growth and dissemination of their myth.

"This year's Dragon Festival was a stark departure from the type of festival the museum traditionally hosts," said Krystal Davis, science administrator for the museum and event planner. "We created a Renaissance fair atmosphere outside of the museum that allowed visitors to shop for dragon-themed, medieval-themed, and fairytale-themed items from vendors, interact with vikings, witness fire performances, view blacksmith presentations, and experience medieval combat demonstrations. We even had stilt walkers roaming about.  Food trucks were available throughout the event and a beer garden was available from 3 to 6 p.m.   Inside the museum, we had a variety of dragon displays, presentations by authors, games and crafts."

Even New York Times best-selling author, Sharyn McCrumb, whose Appalachian "Ballad" novels have brought her national acclaim, was on-hand for a book signing and special presentations.

"We really had something for everyone," said Davis.  "You don't have to be a dragon enthusiast to have a ton of fun at Dragon Festival."

So, why would a science-based museum offer an event based on mythical creatures?  Because dragons are really cool.  Oh, and even myths can have scientific reasons behind their origination.

It's a baffling question.  How did a myriad of cultures throughout the world create some version of the dragon, even before trade routes were firmly established?

One theory that exists is that fossil plants - yes, fossil plants - may have played a significant role in the myth of dragons.  The group studying this theory is known as the Dragon Research Collaborative, which was formed in 2013 by Roanoke College professors Dr. DorothyBelle Poli and Dr. Lisa Stoneman, and a small group of undergraduate students.

The plant fossil, Lepidodendron, existed 300-250 million years ago, when swamps dominated the land and the continents were collected into one landmass known as Pangaea. During this era, Earth had a high oxygen content, allowing organisms to grow exceptionally large. Lepidodendron plants grew as tall as 100 feet and could span to as many as 14 feet wide. During this time, dragonflies had wingspans of up to 6 feet.  Eventually, Pangaea broke apart, shifting the continents towards the format we know today. As this happened, the Lepidodendron forests broke apart, the oxygen content fell, and several species died off, leaving only their fossils behind.

The Lepidodendron have a very distinct scale shape, some rounded and others more diamond in shape.  Additionally, their root structures were partially above ground and often featured the shape of a five-pronged claw. When a branch was lost, the remaining scar looks like a three-dimensional eye.

Now, consider the Lycopodium that lives today. The Lycopodium is a relative of the Lepidodendron, but only grows 6-8 inches tall.  However, Lycopodium does have one very dragon-like quality.  Its spores are explosive.

So, imagine this:  A plant as tall as 100 feet, with a base of 10 feet. Its branches look like claws, or sometimes eyes. It would possibly burst into strings of flame at some point.  If you were alive during those times, or you found fossils of these plants near their fire-spitting relatives, you could have very well thought giant, fire-breathing lizard.  This is exactly what the Dragon Research Collaborative thought, too.

"Science frequently debunks myth and lore, but it also can help contribute to their existences," said Davis.  "People often wonder how the myth of the dragon originated and this festival helps try to answer that question.  Not only is there a a high level of entertainment value, visitors also get the chance to learn about the science behind the myth of dragons."

Dragon Festival was sponsored by Appalachian Power, SOVAH Health and Lester Building Supply.

The festival was made possible due to the support of the Dragon Research Collaborative and Roanoke College.