Monday, April 14, 2008

Tauropesa ungulatus

This abarrant dragon was named in 1938 by West, given its own family, and has been puzzled over ever since. Tauropesa ungulatus is so unique among living dragons, and so unknown among fossil forms, that its exact place in the Draconia is constantly being revised. The African beast is rust-colored with black patches here and there. The forelimbs are tiny and virtually useless; West compared them to the forelimbs of Tyrannosaurus rex. An armor "breastplate" covers the chest, and the long, thick neck is topped with wide bony scales with dorsal protuberances. The legs are unique among dragons--the thigh and metatarsus are subequal in length, while the shins are short. The feet, however, are where the most changes have occurred. Rather than clawed toes, Tauropesa has two large hooves, and two small dewclaws hang limbly behind them, much like the vestigal toes of a pig or moose. The creature stands in a horizontal posture, with the front half held higher than the tail. It is fully bipedal.

The tail is long, sinuous, and devoid of any armor. The wings are not fit for flight--they seem to be composed almost entirely of wing-fingers, though the discovery of a Tauropesa skeleton (Mooney, 1960) would reveal that the wing humerus and radius/ulna are present but reduced to mere nubbings upon which the wing-hands rotate. Indeed, despite not being able to fly, Tauropesa uses its wings in a number of ways--for display, for gathering heat, for cooling off, for shading youngsters, and for shielding kills from competition. The head is fairly small, but powerfully built. It is squared-off like most dragons, and comes equipped with fleshy nostrils. The jaws are capable of crushing bone, which aids in Tauropesa's scavenging lifestyle. Its eyes are set far forward on the skull, with a small degree of binocular vision. A large curved horn erupts from each side of the head and swings forward, giving the dragon its name and a unique appearance.

Tauropesa ungulatus reaches a maximum length of 15 feet and weighs almost a ton. Despite its size, the bull dragon is extremely fast on its feet and has no problem chasing down game should it be unable to find carrion--its main source of food. The enormous nose of Tauropesa seems to have evolved for tracking down rotting meat, and once it arrives at its destination, the dragon uses a number of threat displays to scare away interlopers. Older, larger dragons will attack other scavengers outright. West suggested that the strange, ugly appearance of Tauropesa had to do with intimidation, which may be the case.

However, contrary to this thinking, Tauropesa is one of the few living dragons to display radical sexual dimorphism. Females are almost half the size of males, do not develop bull horns, and tend to be a brownish color rather than red. As juveniles, males and females look similar, but upon reaching sexual maturity, the males develop their horns and hit a growth spurt. This differentiation may actually confirm West's belief that Tauropesa evolved its strange appearance to frighten off rival scavengers, as new understandings of Tauropesa's family life come to light.

Very recently, Westminster & Abby (2002) discovered that Tauropesa lives in small family groups consisting of a mated pair and as many as three juveniles. The bulls do most of the hunting and finding of carrion while the cow defends the juveniles while her mate is away. Usually, the group travels together, and many times both parents will work together in bringing down smaller game (such as antelopes or monitor lizards). Regardless of who makes the kill, the juveniles are allowed to feed before the parents. Juveniles stay with their parents for two years before going off on their own and finding mates. During this time, the sub-adult males begin to develop their horns and will spar with other males for the attention of wandering females. Generally, Westminster & Abby found that this "walkabout" period lasts between two and three years, and males may "date" several potential females over the course of that time before settling on one.

Mated bulls will not tolerate bachelors in their territory, and will aggressively defend their families. These exchanges do not usually involve physical violence--the mated bull will roar and use his wings as a threat display, to which the younger male usually concedes. Fights will break out from time to time, although these battles are almost always fatal to the subadult. Africa is also one of the few places where a dragon lives almost side-by-side with a wyvern. Tauropesa occupies the notherwestern portion of Africa, while Eowyvern dorsetti ranges the lower half of the continent. Although their paths cross rarely, Brimley (1953) noted that the bull dragon seems unconcerned by the presence of Eowyvern, unless the latter is feasting on a carcass that Tauropesa intends to overtake. Being smaller and without significant armament, Eowyvern always backs down from a confrontation with Tauropesa.

The taxonomy of Tauropesa has provided an endless amount of theorizing and argument since its discovery. West placed it in its own family, the Taurodracocidae, but did not elucidate on its relationships with other dragons. And for almost two decades, that's precisely where draconologists were happy to let the matter stand. A fossil form from Chad, however, named Tauroceras warbler (Larson, 1957), shows the diagnostic bull horns of Tauropesa with a large median crest and semi-functional wings. That is to say, while still flightless, Tauroceras had normally-proportioned wings. Unfortunately, the legs were not preserved, so science can say nothing of the creature's pedal anatomy. To Larson, the wing proportions were similar to those of the European dragons, although he did not that, aside from the wings, Taurceras looked nothing like Eudracos or Megalodracos. Von Clause (1972) suggested that Tauropesa belonged to a basal branch of the Draconia, and therefore its immediate relationships would not be obvious. Only fossil forms, he said, would help illuminate its origins.

Irwin & Jones (1978) agreed with Von Clause, noting that, "in fact, the Taurodracocidae may exist near, or at, the base of Draconia as we currently understand it." Irwin (1996) did not change this hypothesis significantly, but did note that "a new specimen of Tauroceras warbler may improve our understanding of this family's murky ancestry." As of this writing, no new specimens have not been described.


West, A. (1938). Tauropesa ungulatus, a new North African dragon. Draconium 2(1): 14-34.

Mooney, B. D. (1960). The skeletal structure of Tauropesa's wing. European Journal of Draconology 50(4): 502-517.

Westminster, A. & Abbey, W. (2002). Field observations of Tauropesa ungulatus. Natura Historia 409: 456-505.

Brimley, W. (1953). Co-occurance of Eowyvern and Tauropesa. Brevia (June): 34-37.

Larson, S. (1957). A Miocene relative of Tauropesa ungulatus. European Journal of Draconology 57(1): 43-56.

Von Clause, P. A. (1972). The Fossil Record of Dragons and Wyverns. Royal Society Press: London.

Irwin, B. E. & Jones, D. (1978). Monophyly of the Draconia. Draconium 19(1): 25-59.

Irwin, B. (1996). A revised phylogeny of the extent Draconia. In A Brief History of Draconology (Suet & Svenson, eds.). Prince Rupert Press: 56-73.

Coming up: Harenadracos tridactylus, terror of the Middle Eastern skies!

1 comment:

lantaro said...

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