Gerald Fines caught wind of a Middle Eastern "dune dragon" in the 1940's, and his subsequent investigation would conclude with the description of a unique new species of dragon, Harenadracos tridactylus. This large, fearsome dragon was (and continues to be) the terror of the skies in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. The beasts are usually found around the Persian Gulf, where food is not as scarce. However, they will invade human colonies and town from time to time and go hunting for larger game. Harenadracos is a strange dragon in many ways, not the least of which is its bizarre wing structure. More like a pterosaur than a dragon, Harenadracos' wing is made up of only three fingers, and only one of them (the third) supports the cheiropatagium. The other two are free of the wing membrane and retain a grasping function. Whether this arrangement is basal or derived is unknown at this time. The wing is further strengthened by a thick rod of fiberous tissue--akin to the actinofibrillae in pterosaurs--originating from the wrist. This rod of tissue is tough and inflexible, and serves to enlarge the cheiropatagium.
The body is long and serpentine, with surprisingly long limbs. The dragon is generally black with brilliant red stripes on the cheiropatagium as well as along the body. The underbelly is white, the neck is bluish-purple, and the head is red. The creature's neck is covered in strange elongate "wattles," the purpose of which is unknown. Both sexes have these wattles. They may function as display devices, however: Grinham (1971) witnessed two dragons displaying to each other, and both shook their necks vigorously, sending the wattles flying in all directions. Although their structure is not known (corpses for this species have not been described), Grinham hypothesized that they were made up of dead scale tisuse, as the wattles sounded like "somebody shaking a rainstick" when the animals shook their necks. Harenadracos measures about sixteen feet from head to tail, with a thirty-six foot wingspan.
The head is also unusual for a dragon. Triangular and dorsoventrally flattened, the animal's bite is not especially strong, but it tears its meat apart with the help of a small rostral bone which caps the premaxillaries. Heranadracos' sense of smell is negligable, but its eyesight is very keen. The animal gets its name from its strange habit of lying on sand dunes, its wings spread. Locals cautioned not to approach a dune dragon while in this position, but it was not until 1980, when Ranch and his team ignored such a warning, that the purpose of this behavior came to light. Having sighted a lying dragon with his binoculars, Ranch and a team of graduate students began making their way across the desert sands toward their quarry. When they had reached a distance of about two hundred feet, the dragon took flight with frightening speed and made a beeline for his group. One of the graduate students was snatched up in the dragon's fearsome talons. Ranch later remarked that, to his horror, he found himself caught up in the sight, intruiged by the dragon's method of prey capture. Finding its struggling prey too heavy to efficiently carry off, the dragon sank all of its claws deep into the victim (probably killing him instantly), and then flung the body some fifty feet away. Ranch said that there was an audible "thump" as the corpse hit the sands, and the dragon was seconds behind it. Ranch and his remaining students ran for the hills, averting their eyes from the carnage behind them.
Oddly for a dragon, Harenadracos tridactylus is not usually seen in the air, but rather seems to prefer getting around on foot. It seems quite happy to wander quadrapedally around the coastline of the Persian Gulf and even among the dunes. Although not especially aggressive, dune dragons are best not trifled with. Younger dragons are more curious of humans than adults, and may approach from a distance. In most cases, the young dragon simply wants to know what you are, and once it has sniffed and licked you, will usually wander off. It is wise not to run away or act aggressively toward the dragon, as its mood can quickly change!
Given its bizarre wing anatomy, Harenadracos' taxonomic status is problematic. It is the sole member of its own family, the Harenadracocidae. A single fossil wing finger from the Pliocene of Mongolia shows similarities to the wing finger of Harenadracos (Wilder, 2004), but tells us nothing of the creature's ancestry. It could even belong to the same genus, or be from an five-fingered dragon. If we remove the wings from Harenadracos, it is usually recovered as a close relative of Rugodracos arborealis (Irwin & Jones, 1978). Exactly why Harenadracos modified its wings so heavily is a matter of some debate, although Mooney (1962) believes that the dune dragon is in the process of becoming secondarily flightless.
Fines, G. A. (1947). A description of the Iranian "dune dragon." Draconium 11(3): 314-337.
Grinham, F. (1971). Display tactics among Draconia. European Journal of Draconology 71(4): 522-575.
Wilder, J. (2004). A potential dragon wing finger from the Gobi Desert. Natura Historia 411: 349-453.
Irwin, B. E. & Jones, D. (1978). Monophyly of the Draconia. Draconium 19(1): 25-59.
Mooney, B. D. (1962). Does wing structure simplification lead to flightlessness? European Journal of Draconology 52(3): 368-381.
Coming up: Rugodracos aborealis, a ceratopsian dragon from the jungles of Asia!