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Draconology - The wyrms

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Part of the reason I like working in 3D is that I can create something new just by bashing together parts of other models I've made before, instead of starting everything from scratch, which is a huge time saver. That said, the reason this took so long is because, as it turns out, the vast majority of dragon myths worldwide feature not winged, fire-breathing creatures, but rather venomous, serpentine ones often associated with water and/or the earth, y'know, like real snakes & lizards.

So here's my take on these serpentine dragons, aka wyrms!

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The term 'wyrm' refers to a number of basal Draconiform reptiles, with not all taxa included under this grouping being closely related. As such, similar to the eureptilian lizards, wyrms are paraphyletic, and considered more of an evolutionary grade rather than a single clade. However, it's easy to see how this grouping came about - all species share many characteristics. As with wyverns, a good many species possess venom, but unlike wyverns, the venom-producing glands as well as the delivery mechanism varies considerably between taxa. A handful few are even considered poisonous. While the majority of species are carnivorous, omnivorous and a few herbivorous species do exist.

One important characteristic that seems to unite all wyrms is their breathing mechanism. Lacking a diaphragm or any other similar structure, wyrms instead breathe via "gastralic pumping", wherein their gastralia (abdominal ribs) are pulled upwards & pushed downwards by strong abdominal muscles to decrease and increase their internal volume, respectively. As the gastralia move downwards, the internal volume increases causing the lungs to expand and thus draw air inwards, and as the gastralia move upwards the internal volume decreases forcing air out of the lungs. This mechanism appears to have been the basal condition in draconiformes, and possibly the Draconimorpha as a whole,

A total of 226 species belonging to 7 clades are classified as wyrms, making them the most speciose members of the Draconimorpha as a whole.

 

The Ventophiopidae, also called the flying wyrms, wind wyrms or butterfly wyrms, are a family of wyrms native to East and southeast Asia that, in convergence with several other vertebrates, have become gliders. Surprisingly, although commonly referred to as wyrms, they are more closely related to wyverns than to any of the other wyrm clades. Together with the wyverns, they form the clade Volanosauromorpha. Fossils of some of the earliest wyverns actually show a great deal of resemblance to these, and genetic studies further prove a shared ancestry. But while the wyverns went on to develop powered flight, the wind wyrms evolved into a more serpentine bauplan, and adopted an unusual mode of gliding similar to that of the flying snake (Chrysopelea spp). None of the 3 known species are venomous, and will generally swallow their prey of small vertebrates whole, sometimes without even killing it first.

The muxianglong (Ventophiopsis regalis) or great wind wyrm, is the largest member of this clade, measuring upto 1.5 - 1.8 m in length, but due its slender build, weighs just under 0.7 kg. As with other wind wyrms, this species is able to glide by leaping from a tree branch, and sucking in its abdomen while flaring out its ribs to create a concave shape, essentially using its entire body like a parachute. By undulating its body in a serpentine motion, it is able to maintain some degree of stability as well as maneuver through the air. The large, hood-like skin flaps extending from its flanks, neck and tail further increase the surface area of the 'parachute'. Using this approach, the wind wyrm can glide upto 100 -120 m, and even make slight changes to its trajectory mid-flight. Both sexes possess fleshy tendrils on their heads, whose function isn't fully understood, but are believed to help these diurnal reptiles navigate their canopy habitats at night.

 

Perhaps the most unusual wyrm is the olgoi-khorkhoi (Psammovermis carcharops), also called the sand wyrm, death worm, or death wyrm. Although it bears a passing resemblance to lindwurms, studies show that this is merely a result of convergent evolution, and that the olgoi-khorkhoi isn't particularly closely related to any other extant wyrm clade. For this reason, the species is placed in its own family, the Psammovermidae, whose sole member is endemic to the Gobi Desert of eastern Asia.

The death wyrm is characterized by its segmented appearance, which is actually due to its scales being arranged in discrete rings along its body. As a sandswimmer, its hindlimbs have been lost over the course of its evolution, its forelimbs are nearly vestigial, and its head is triangular and distinctively shark-like in profile, which gives the species its name. Its eyes are protected by a transparent scale similar to those of snakes, and lacks eyelids. The death wyrm's unique lifestyle is likely an adaptation to the Gobi desert's harsh, extreme climate - by burrowing deep under the sand where temperatures are more stable, it can survive the heat of the day and cold of the night, a crucial necessity for an ectotherm. The death wyrm is also notable for its extremely potent venom, injected via 3 pairs of hollow fangs in its upper jaw. A deadly blend of neuro- and cytotoxins, in sufficient quantities the venom is known to bring down animals as large as camels in mere minutes, with much less being needed to kill the small reptiles & mammals that form the majority of its diet. Unlike snakes however, the death wyrm's knife-like teeth allow it to tear off chunks of flesh, which in turn allows the animal to hunt far larger prey than itself and simply gorge itself, though this is quite rare and they're more likely to scavenge on such large game. When threatened however, the death wyrm is quite reluctant to bite, and will instead spit stomach acid at the aggressor as a deterrent; should this fail to dissuade a predator however, and it will strike. Adult death wyrms can grow to 2 - 2.5 m in length, with females being larger than males, and are generally a sandy brown colour. Juvenile death wyrms, which are much more commonly seen as they roam close to the surface of the sand, are a bright red, an aposematism to indicate that they are dangerous. The species is ovoviviparous, with females giving birth to 7-10 "wyrmlings", which follow her around for a few days before going their own separate ways.

 

The other 5 wyrm families, while still only distantly related, are in fact monophyletic, and as such are classified under a single clade, the Ophiosuchia, whose members are often collectively referred to as 'true wyrms'. This clade is further divided into 2 superfamilies - Ouroboroidea and Ophiosuchoidea.

 

Ouroboroidea consists of 2 families, the Ouroboridae & Cerataspidae. These wyrms have elongated serpentine bodies with short limbs.

 

More often than not, the term 'wyrm' refers to members of the Ouroboridae, which are the most diverse clade, with 91 known species distributed mostly through southern Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa, and a few in North America. All known species possess venom, which is produced in 2 pairs of glands in the upper jaw and delivered via 2 pairs of multi-grooved fangs. These are the most vocal of wyrms, producing a range of vocalizations from hisses, squeaks and yelps to almost bird-like calls, most which appear to be associated with mating. While most ouroborids have rather mild venom, many species are also poisonous, sequestering toxins from their prey in their skin or usually in dorsal glands. As such, when threatened, these species will roll into a circle, with their tail in their jaws and present their backs to the predator. If the predator does bite, the toxins are released and the wyrm escapes while the predator is incapacitated.

The crested copperback wyrm (Ouroboros acanthocristus), which, at a maximum length of 1.5 m, isn't the largest, but is the most common ouroborid. Native to northern Africa, southern Europe and western Asia where it inhabits several types of habitat ranging from desert & grassland to mountains.

It spends much of the daytime underground, and hunts at night for its main prey: frogs, toads and small reptiles. Its venom therefore isn't particularly toxic to mammals and birds, but this isn't an issue as it relies mostly on the toxins produced by its poisonous prey (frogs & toads) for defense. Both sexes possess crests on their heads, whose exact function is unclear.

 

While wyrms appear to have evolved at least somewhat convergently with snakes, the Cerataspidae are perhaps the most snake-like of all. Also known as horned wyrms, as all species possess some form of spiny cranial ornamentation, these are the second most diverse clade, with 88 known species. Of these, 55 are endemic to Atlantis, with the remainder distributed across the Americas and Europe. The reason for their high endemicity in Atlantis is likely due to the fact that there are no venomous snakes present, allowing the cerataspids to occupy similar niches. As with the ouroborids, all known species are venomous, and inject their venom via 2 pairs of fangs. Unlike ouroborids though, the fangs are placed further forward in the jaw, and are hollow, similar to a cobra or viper's, and the venom is also much more complex, with not 1 but 2 distinct pairs of venom glands producing different components of the venom which are injected simultaneously.

While Atlantis is home to the most species, the largest ones are actually found in North America, such as the greater banded Uktena (Megacerastes tigrinus). At 3.5 - 4.5 m long, it is one of the largest cerataspid species, with males growing larger than females, and while its haemo- myotoxic venom isn't as toxic as that of some others, the high quantities it injects via its large venom glands have been known to fell animals as large as bison and young mammoths. However, it feeds mostly on much smaller game, such as rodents, birds, fish and reptiles, including other wyrms. A semi-aquatic species, it spends a considerable amount of time in rivers, lakes & swamps, where the water helps better conceal its size. Like other cerataspids, this species is more cold-tolerant than other similarly-sized reptiles, which allows it inhabit higher latitudes where competition from snakes is more limited. Nonetheless, as an ectotherm, more northerly populations living in colder climates are smaller than those in warmer ones, as larger size means having to bask for longer to warm up.

 

The Ophiosuchoidea comprise 3 families, the Vermisauridae, Ophiosuchidae & Dolichovaranidae. These wyrms have bulkier bodies with longer, well-muscled limbs, making them look much like serpentine crocodiles or elongated lizards.

 

The Vermisauridae, also known as lindwyrms, lindwurms or lindworms, are a very basal lineage of wyrms, and with just 5 species in a single genus, are the least speciose clade of Ophiosuchoidea. Out of 5, 4 are distributed across Europe and parts of northern Asia, and 1 is native to Atlantis. Fossil evidence shows that the group was at one point far more diverse, but during the last ice age at the end of the Pleistocene, the majority of species went extinct as a result of the extensive glaciation. The species that survive today seemingly only managed to do so as they were more tolerant of the cold. Indeed, lindwurms have a higher metabolic rate compared to similarly sized reptiles, and a unique countercurrent heat exchanger allows them to keep some of their organs warmer than their environment, though they cannot maintain a constant body temperature. One of their most notable traits is the complete loss of the hindlimbs, similar to the olgoi-khorkhoi, but this is a result of convergent evolution. In contrast to the latter, the forelimbs of lindwurms are quite robust, allowing them to "walk" rather than slither. All species are venomous, but their venom apparatus is quite unusual. In addition to 2 pairs of venom glands in the upper jaw, they also have a pair in the lower jaw, which appears to have been the ancestral condition in the common ancestor of all wyrms and wyverns. The teeth aren't particularly specialised for venom-delivery, with only shallow grooves, because of which lindwurms will hold on to a prey animal and "chew" the venom in, similar to monitor lizards, gila monsters & beaded lizards.

All lindwurms are semi-aquatic, but the great lindwurm (Vermisaurus microlepis) is easily the species most specialised for such a lifestyle. Measuring 5 - 5.5 m in length, with females growing larger than males, this is the largest species of lindwurm, and is native to northern Europe, where it inhabits marshlands, lakes, rivers and even estuaries. Juveniles have bright green mouths, which acts as aposematic colouring to warn predators of its venomous bite, but as they reach adult size and become less vulnerable to predation, this bright green fades to a dark, almost black colour. The flattened tail makes it a powerful swimmer, while its strong forelimbs and claws allow it to withstand strong river currents. During the day, it spends most of its time in the water, venturing onto land mostly at night. While fish comprise much of its diet, it also preys upon mammals and birds quite frequently, as such its venom is quite toxic towards them. A complex combination of haemo- & neurotoxins, the venom leads to massive blood loss and (later) respiratory failure. Great lindwurms have been known to occasionally hunt prey as large as deer and bovids, though this is a rare occurrence. During winters, when lakes and rivers freeze over, great lindwurms hibernate in burrows dug out either by them or other animals such as burrowing mammals. As with all other lindwurm species but unlike other wyrms, they show true viviparity, i.e, the developing offspring are nourished within the mother's body via a placenta-like organ for 2 months. Mating generally occurs shortly before hibernation, and 2-6 wyrmlings are born shortly afterwards. While they can hunt immediately after birth, they require the mother's protection for 3-4 months.

 

The 26 species of Dolichovaranidae are known as hydras, basilisks and nagas, depending on their locality. They're distributed broadly across Asia, Africa, Australia, Lemuria & southern Europe, and entirely absent in the Americas. Many species are able to extend a hood (flap of skin supported by modified ribs) on their necks as a threat display, similar to cobras, and like them, many species have very potent venom, although the toxicity seems to decrease with increasing size across the group. The venom-producing glands are quite large, and the venom itself is injected via 2 pairs of deeply grooved teeth. The venoms of dolichovaranids in general are neurotoxic and/or haemotoxic, and help incapacitate their, usually, fast-moving prey such as small mammals, birds, fish as well as subdue more dangerous quarry such as snakes, crocodilians and dragons. The majority of them are semi-aquatic, but do not tolerate cold as well as some other wyrms, restricting them to tropical and subtropical regions. As with other Ophiosuchoideans, they are able to raise their bodies off the ground in a semi-erect gait, making them faster walkers while simultaneously negating the need to slither in a serpentine fashion. Whereas most other wyrm species are either entirely oviparous or ovoviviparous, dolichovaranids are unique in that many species are able to switch between the 2 modes of reproduction. This appears to be an adaptation to their semi-aquatic lifestyle: if their nesting sites run the risk of flooding, they will retain the eggs within their bodies and give birth to live young. In all known species, females are larger than males.

The largest member of this group is the ornate golden naga (Najasaurus aurifrons) of southern and southeast Asia, which can reach sizes of 6.5 m and weigh over 90 kg, making it one of the largest wyrms, surpassed only by some ophiosuchids which are much heavier. As with other nagas, it is able to flare out flaps of skin on its neck into a large hood, which it uses as a threat display. Despite its impressive size, this species does have predators in the form of big cats, crocodiles and dragons, while juveniles often fall prey to large birds, wyverns, snakes & monitor lizards. Because the species preys mostly upon fish, amphibians & smaller reptiles, its venom is far less toxic to mammals compared to some other members of its group. Moreover, because of its large size, venom may not even be necessary to subdue most prey. This naga's venom is predominantly cytotoxic, causing rapid tissue necrosis and therefore great pain, sufficient to either incapacitate fleeing prey or dissuade any predator, but is rarely fatal to large mammals. During the mating season just before the monsoons, several male nagas (which may be 30% smaller than females), will attempt to mate with a single female. Such matings generally occur underwater, and while as many as 20 males may fight to mate, only 2-8 will emerge victorious. While biting is common during such clashes, they are completely immune to each other's venom. Similar to snakes, a 'mating ball' is often formed as the victorious males further struggle to mate with the female. This can often give the appearance of a single, large, multi-headed serpentine reptile, and is likely the origin of the multi-headed serpent myth. Following mating, the female will lay her eggs in a burrow on higher ground, or if a suitable site isn't available, will retain the eggs within her body. This is likely the reason why females do not gestate for over a month after mating. A female may produce as many as 30-40 offspring, which immediately go their separate ways.

 

The Ophiosuchidae are so named for their elongated bodies and osteoderm-covered backs. Sometimes referred to as serpentine dragons, crocodile wyrms or scaly salamanders, the 23 species in this family are distributed through the Americas, Africa, southern & southeast Asia, Lemuria and northern Australia, and represent the best-studied clade of wyrms. All known species are venomous, and though the majority are rather small, with few exceeding 1.5 - 2 m in length, it is these smaller species that have the most potent venoms. The venom glands of ophiosuchids are notably quite large, perhaps due to their large skulls, and inject venom via 2 pairs of deeply grooved fangs similar to the dolichovaranids. While many species are terrestrial, semi-aquatic species are just as numerous, and as with the ouroborids, a few species are both venomous and poisonous.

The largest member of this clade, as well as the largest wyrm in the world, is the semi-aquatic ash wyrm (Ophiosuchus cinerea) of Central and South America. Growing to 5.5 - 6.5 m in length and weighing 250-300 kg, it is similar in length to a large Nile or saltwater crocodile, and while a few wyrms may grow to exceptional lengths exceeding this, none are heavier. This makes it one of the largest venomous animals, rivaled in size only by the giant varanid Megalania.

These wyrms get their name from their dull green to ashen grey colouration as adults, although juveniles possess bright, aposematic colouration which gradually fades as they age.

Ash wyrms share their native range with a number of crocodylians, large boid snakes, such as anacondas, and several large drake and dragon species. The reason for their survival though is rather surprising: instead of simply targeting a different prey base as their competitors, ash wyrms are highly adept at tackling large reptilian prey. Their venom is unique among wyrms in that it is entirely composed of neurotoxins, and is capable of inducing rapid, near-instantaneous paralysis in their victims, which, in combination with the large quantity of venom injected, only accelerates the effect. A well placed strike therefore, can render even the largest anaconda or caiman completely paralysed within a minute, and can cause death by asphyxiation just a few minutes later, thus minimising the wyrm's risk of injury. To further minimise such risks, ash wyrms generally target juvenile prey species, and will rarely attack anything as big as themselves, especially since their fangs, while long & robust, are incapable of penetrating the armoured hides of some adult crocodylians, dragons & drakes. Nonetheless, injuries can occur, and several wyrms that attempt to take on very large prey often bear the scars of their errors. Surprisingly, because their venom is designed to specifically target reptilian nerves, it is not particularly lethal to mammals. While a bite can cause similar paralysis in mammals, it doesn't appear to be particularly long-lasting, and if a bitten individual manages to escape, it will generally recover with few to no long-lasting effects, though due to the large quantities of venom injected, smaller mammals may succumb to toxic shock. While their size and venom offer good defence, adult ash wyrms do occasionally fall prey to large drakes or crocodylians, especially when faced by a group of the latter, and mammalian predators such as sabertoothed cats and jaguars are also known to exploit the weakness of the wyrm's venom to deadly effect.

Although solitary, female ash wyrms congregate in large numbers in suitable habitats during the mating season, during which time males will compete viciously to gain mating access. Following mating, the males disperse, while the females lay around 30-50 eggs, which are then cared for 2 months, during which time the females will not eat. The hatching of the eggs usually coincides with the onset of the wet season, at which point the female abandons the hatchlings.


The Draconimorpha

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Nice Job I Love These Designs

VikasRao's avatar

Thank you ๐Ÿ˜€

JRBeeler's avatar

Just keep them out of Florida, OK? I have coworkers and relatives there.

Talon0550's avatar

Considering that Atlantis and Lemuria exist in this setting, may I ask what else lives there? (aside from other draconimorphs)

VikasRao's avatar

Just there? A few endemic mammal clades, some specialised forms of non-endemic clades, plenty of endemic birds...no late surviving non-avian dinosaurs though, sorry if that's what you meant ๐Ÿ˜…

Talon0550's avatar

Interesting. And no worries, non-avian dinosaurs weren't on my mind. Considering the lore of the setting, having a no-K-Pg extinction would contradict it

wispman2's avatar
VikasRao's avatar

Thanks ๐Ÿ˜€

Excellent. Appreciated the scale silhouettes.

VikasRao's avatar

Thank you ๐Ÿ˜€

I had an idea that the flying wyrms, especially those found in east asian countries, could have some sort of bowerbird-like collecting behaviour, giving rise to the depiction of dragons carrying a pearl in one claw.

VikasRao's avatar

That's an excellent idea!

MidasWh's avatar

Hello foreign comrade, we Russians are working on our project "wild ancestors", in short, we combine fantasy and science, including planetology, physics and biology, especially biology, I don't know how about my assistants, but I like your ideas, including dragonology, as opposites to fictitious huge monsters, ordinary, but at the same time real dragons,uou would not mind to indirectly participate in the development of the project and perhaps even give the opportunity to use part of your developments, of course with your permission?

VikasRao's avatar

Hi there, so sorry for the late reply, I guess I missed the notification ๐Ÿ˜…

I don't really get a lot of time for art, and what time I do get I focus completely on this Draconology project, so unfortunately I don't think I can help with yours....but your idea is really cool, and it'd be unfair if any collab ends up just interfering with your work, so good luck ๐Ÿ™‚

Wittle's avatar
I love the smell of fresh speculative dragon artistic license in the morning!! You just earned a watch from me!
VikasRao's avatar

Thank you ๐Ÿ˜€

Man I really love this project. So in this universe some extinct fauna managed to survive right? like the mammoth sabertooth cats and the marsupials from the previous post.

VikasRao's avatar

Thanks a lot! Yes, basically Homo sapiens never evolved in this setting, so the Holocene extinction never happened, which means a bunch of species which went extinct in the last 20k years are still very much around

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