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February 1, 2018

Even after Summer gives way to Autumn, the Virginia Museum of Natural History will heat things back up - with a little bit of help from fire-breathing dragons.  On Saturday, October 19 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., the museum will host "Dragon Festival", offering visitors a Renaissance Fair atmosphere where they will explore 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 will be a stark departure from the type of festival the museum traditionally hosts," said Zach Ryder, marketing and public relations manager at VMNH. "We will create a Renaissance fair atmosphere outside of the museum that allows 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 will even have stilt walkers roaming about.  Food trucks will available throughout the event and a beer garden will be available throughout the afternoon.   Inside the museum, we will have a variety of never-before-seen dragon displays, presentations by authors, games and crafts."

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 is sponsored by Martinsville-Henry County Tourism Division and the Charity League of Martinsville-Henry County.

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

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