Va'gha'ra Tigripteryx oikosimo ("Crest tiger-wing", Greek tigris [tiger]+pteryga [wing]+oikosimo [crest]) Height: 5.7 ft (0.97 m) Length: 12.5 ft (2.86 m) Wingspan: 12 ft (3.65 m) Weight: 500 lbs (226.8 kg) Lifespan: 75-80 years Diet: Carnivorous Range: Never Mountains (Yonder) Offense/Defense: Powerful jaws full of dagger-like teeth, razor-sharp head/spinal/wing/tail blades, strong talons to pin down prey, flaming breath Status: Endangered Danger Level: High - Proceed with caution
Kingdom: Animalia Phylum: Chordata Class: Reptilia Division: Archosauria Superorder: Pterosauroidia Order: Drakea Suborder: Neodrakeoidea Superfamily: Rhynchodontidae Family: Coelophoidae Subfamily: Coelophoidae Tribe: Tigripteryxini Genus: Tigripteryx Species: T. oikosimo, T. spathatos
The Va'gha'ra, or Tiger Drake, is known by the people of the Never Mountains as "The Striped Death"... and not just because of the patterns on its body. A powerful, aggressive, and deadly hunter, this ferocious drake embodies many of the qualities of its feline namesake. It is a major predator that once patrolled the mountain passageways in great numbers, presenting a serious threat to the people who traversed this region. And even in the face of humanity, it still stakes out its living in the danger zone as its natural weaponry come at odds with the intelligence and prowess of a race that is every bit as powerful in one respect as it is in another. The Va'gha'ra, appearance aside, is taxonomically classed as a Rhynchodontid. However, it has features that are similar to other members of this clade, such as a row of spiked plates on its back, a relatively short snout, and shorter feet than other Rhynchodontids. In fact, it appears more similar to a more distant relative, the bilophid Ar'kta'ra, than to more closely related drakes. There was some controversy in the scientific community concerning whether this creature evolved features like this due to splitting from the Bilophids or convergent evolution in the Rhynchodontids. However, current anatomical and genetic analysis places this drake in the Rhynchodontid family, as indicated by the presence of the signature egg tooth and a fully developed fourth toe. Because it also shows characteristics akin to Bilophids, however, such as supraorbital ridges and breath weapon pockets in the upper jaw as well as the lower, it is likely that this drake split from the rest of the family relatively early in Rhynchodont evolution.
As befitting its name, the Va'gha'ra's distinctive appearance is proof of its specializiation as a camouflaged hunter. There are two species of this fierce hunter: the Va'gha'ra'shta or Forest Tiger Drake (T. spathatos), and the the Va'gha'ra'eor or Cliff Tiger Drake (T. oikosimo). Both species are arrow-shaped in build, with wedge-like heads that are accented by a razor-sharp backward-sweeping crest that is bigger and more brightly colored in the male than the female. Both sexes have brick- to cherry-red, entirely scaly hides that are swathed in dark blue to black stripes, which cover the tops of the wings as well as the body, legs, face, and tail and are used as camouflage in the variegated light of the environment. The back is protected by a row of bony plates, which serve as the basis for three rows of backwards-curving, brightly colored, extremely sharp blades. The wings have bright red patterning on their undersides, and the drake can alter the patterns as a complicated signalling system. The underbelly is covered in overlapping, fish-like scales with red outer edges and orange centers, combining into a strong but flexible chain-mail-like armor coat to protect the Va'gha'ra's belly from enemy attack. Finally, the tail is long, flexible, and as dangerous as the front end, as the last three rows of crests are elongated forming a ferocious spike array, known as a thagomizer, not unlike those seen on stegosaur dinosaurs. The Va'gha'ra'shta lives in forests below the treeline and has wider stripes and shorter blades, while the Va'gha'ra'eor (shown here) has paler scales and brighter crest patterns. Va'gha'ras, like many other drakes, are entirely carnivorous, and only very rarely ingest plant or inorganic material. As formidable hunters, they are primarily solitary, and need no help in taking down their prey because they can easily kill large prey such as bonnacons, moas, and ceratopsians. Unlike other species of drakes, which strike with their talons, the Va'gha'ra strikes maw-first, and is equipped with extremely powerful and resilient jaws. Its jaws are immensely powerful, but its bite force is not as strong as that of other predators, measuring at 2500 psi - which turns out to be relatively measly among drakes when compared to the Pte'ra's 4000 psi. However, its neck muscles are incredibly strong, and its teeth are heavily reinforced - over a third of each is root, and each whole tooth can grow up to 7 inches long. The whole head is not so much as the Pte'ra's crushing trap, but rather a battery for battery, so to speak. The Va'gha'ra strikes by opening its jaw and flying directly into the opponent, and the strong neck muscles guide and stabilize the head while powering all 15-25 serrated teeth straight into the quarry. Both its skull and its beak are heavily reinforced for this purpose, with large holes bordered by bony struts that distribute the force of impact more easily. One bite on a well-placed area can rip off 20 pounds of meat, creating a deep bleeding gash that can be fatal if the Va'gha'ra hits the right spot. Once it has felled its prey, the drake consumes it on the spot, often dragging it to a safe hiding place and returning to eat it later. This drake uses its mouth to hunt because its talons have lost their ability to kill directly - they are not large or strong enough, since the Va'gha'ra uses them as built-in crampons to scale and perch on cliffs or trees. However, the talons are still useful in hunting because the drake cannot ensure a clean kill with the mouth alone unless it can gain enough speed in the air and aim its dive accurately. It uses them to pin down the meal, keeping it secure enough for the drake to deliver its single, devastating bite. The jaws also kill in another way. The lower jaw is hollow, to support the breath weapon, but the upper also has a weapon pocket. Each gland secretes a chemical that reacts with the other - the upper secretes a magnesium-rich oil that is replenished by the consumption of rocks in the mountains, while the lower secretes an aqueous enzyme solution similar to mammal saliva. The drake sprays both compounds into the air using special teeth on the palate and mouth floor, and as they combine, the magnesium is released and ignites - resulting in a blast of flames that can reach up to 10,000 degrees Farenheit. To withstand the heat, the tissues have an asbestos-like compound that is concentrated in the scales, allowing the drake to withstand this high temperature. It cannot be burned by its own fire breath. Even if the mechanism backfires, the internal burns are only rarely fatal, as there is no need for a gas supply inside the body. This drake uses its flame breath as a display, to cook its meals, and to fight with rivals and enemies - it does not need to kill with the flame breath because its bite does the job easily. But where does the armor fit in? The Va'gha'ra dos not use its crests for hunting, obviously, since they are positioned on its back, well out of the way of its prey. One important clue comes from the creatures it convergently evolved this feature with. If any creature has evolved a defensive mechanism on its back, there must be a larger predator that lives in the same habitat - hedgehogs and armadillos, thyreophoreans, and stonefish all have defense mechanisms on their backs, because their enemies tend to be larger and thus attacks are directed at the top of their bodies. So what kind of creature would dare attack a Va'gha'ra? As it turns out, there are quite a few giant flying predators in the Never Mountains that would obviously enjoy a Va'gha'ra as a snack if they could - of particular significance are the Roc, the Pte'ra, and several giant species of Zmey, all of which are active aerial carnivores that kill with an attack from above. Given that all three of these predators are native to the Never Mountains, it is no surprise that the Va'gha'ra is put under intense pressure from predation, which explains why it has evolved its magnificent but deadly armor. The armor itself consists of vertical plates covered in brightly colored keratin, similar to those on a stegosaur, but with extremely sharp edges. To reinforce them should a predator try to strike, the blades are embedded in bony shields, which are in turn attached by muscles and ligaments to the spinal cord for flexibility (the armor is not attached directly to the spine, but is instead affixed to the skin like a thyreophorean dinosaur). The central row, running down the spine, is larger and protects the creature's back, while the secondary rows are smaller and protects its sides. Additional protection includes the scales on its wings, which are adapted into cutting mechanisms that can strafe and slice an enemy that closes from the side, and a powerful tail tipped with a thagomizer that can cause devestating injuries to anything moving in from behind. The people of the Never Mountains have a special saying related to this: "The Va'gha'ra is like a man. Unlike the other wild beasts that you can safely stand in front of or behind, neither of them can be approached from any side."
As a matter of fact, the only creatures that can approach an adult Va'gha'ra without risk of being disembowelled, roasted, or eaten are, of course, other Va'gha'ras, and even then they are still at risk. The Tiger Drake, like its namesake, is territorial and a solitary hunter, with females staking out a territory of fifty square miles to ensure a good food supply. Males are nomadic, especially during the mating season, and meet up with females only to breed. They are judged by the color of their blades, which is enhanced when they flush blood into the blood vessels inside that fuel the keratin growth, the patterns on their wings, and the luster of their belly scales. To advertise its presence, the Va'gha'ra uses its large throat and vocal sac to release a powerful screeching roar, which is deeper than the shriek of other drakes and can be heard up to three miles away. A male is smaller than a female, but only marginally so - they are distinguished by the fact that the male has yellow and orange tips on his blades, while the female's blades are solid red. Unlike other drakes, the female Va'gha'ra gives birth to live young - the fallow, mountainous terrain does not provide good conditions for egg-burying, so the drake keeps its eggs inside her body. Three to four months after mating, the mother finds a safe place to give birth, and ejects up to five or six youngsters which can fly and even breathe fire from birth. These flaplings are smaller, paler, and less armored than adults, and remain with their mothers for two to three years. Then afterwards they go off on their own... or so it seems. As a matter of fact, with the numbers of prey items increasing in recent years, it is becoming apparent that Va'gha'ras are more social than previously thought. Females communicate with each other and even aid each other during hunting, and wandering males also form groups, often brothers or cousins. And groups of Va'gha'ras can defend territories more easily from rivals or predators. It seems that as well as being able to feed themselves, Va'gha'ras are capable of protection from the other horrors of the sky. Or, at least, the simple pleasure of genteel companionship.
Andy says: "As crazy as it seems, the people of the Never Mountains have actually succeeded in taming Va'gha'ras and keeping them as pets! Like Earth's tiger, this drake is a formidable creature, but it can be trained to be gentle to humans if raised from an early age. This could be the key to saving the species, because in the wild they are illegally poached for their spectacularly patterned hides, blades, and wing membranes, and overhunting has reduced their numbers to less than 1/10th of their pre-human population. However, these drakes breed well in captivity, and as the mountian folk believe that the Va'gha'ra is sacred and must not be killed, with luck their numbers may eventually rebound. My research has revealed that as they cannot of course be used for any purpose that involves killing them, be it food, medicine, or tools, the natives breed them instead for battle. Fast, powerful, agile, deadly, and versatile, they are the perfect fighters, and work is underway towards their use as steeds as well - if only we can find a pratical spot for the saddle!"