Fire Breathing Dragons –True Story?
New research indicates that it is possible that the legends of fire-breathing dragons were inspired by humans truthfully reporting on actual experiences.
How could this be? To have a fire we need three things: a flammable material, a spark and oxygen. Oxygen is freely available in the atmosphere. Sparks often occur in nature as static electricity, the result of a stone falling on another stone, and of course during electrical storms. All we need now is a fuel source.
Let’s start at the beginning. Or maybe we should say that we will start at the end, because a naturally occurring source of flammable gas can be found at the end of the human digestive system. To see the raw footage of intrepid young researchers proving that human flatulence is indeed flammable, you need only visit YouTube. Here is a particularly enthusiastic experimenter. YouTube video
I realize that the fact that the majority of the YouTube research subjects are male, but I do have it on excellent authority that if a female human were to pass gas that it would be just as flammable.
Digesting food is akin to composting. Digesting happens inside a body, and composting happens outside; but in both cases, the material is decomposing into components. Then the digestive system absorbs the nutrients that it can, and releases the reminder from the body as waste. In humans the main gas released is hydrogen. And as anyone who remembers the Hindenburg knows, hydrogen is very flammable.
So do other animals produce flammable gas during their digestive processes? They do. For example, cows are a major source of the green house gas methane. You might be asking why cows produce methane instead of hydrogen. The answer is that we are digesting different foods. Humans can’t digest grass, while that’s what makes up most of a cow’s diet.
Is Methane Flammable?
So is methane flammable? As any dairy farmer can tell you, exploding manure pits pose a serious danger on a dairy farm. Seriously. Grass continues to decompose even after it has left the cow. Too much manure piled up in one location causes a concentration of methane. Add a spark from a pitchfork scraping a rock and… KA-BOOM!
Now this brings up a new question. You might remember that cows tend to sleep standing up. Bored teenagers in ranching areas have long enjoyed Cow Tipping. If you haven’t heard of Cow Tipping, it involves sneaking up on a sleeping cow and pushing it over. In the interest of full disclosure, I have never had the opportunity to participate. So No, I don’t know how many teenagers it takes to tip cow.
I do know that this prank is pleasing to neither the cow nor the rancher. I suspect that they might be even less pleased if bored teenagers attempted to light cow flatulence. .
But unlike humans, cows are protected from fiery farts. Firstly, cows don’t fart audibly. So how would a prankster know when to flick the lighter? Cows and related animals have an extra feature at the end of their digestive system that allows gas to be released silently. Having a digestive silencer is a great advantage to an animal that spends most of its time quietly hiding from predators while chewing its cud.
Secondly, as additional protection against malevolent teenagers, the methane that is released from a cow’s exhaust pipe is too diluted by other gases to ignite.
But thirdly, cows don’t release much methane from the far end of their digestive system. The majority of cow methane is burped up from their complicated system of stomachs.
A Fire-Breathing Cow?
A fire-breathing cow is definitely a tantalizing thought, but cow burps are diluted by regular air being exhaled and again don’t have the concentration to ignite.
So if not a fire-breathing cow, do any other animals exhale flammable gas?
Here’s where it gets interesting, and well, a bit graphic. If you’re squeamish, you have been warned to stop reading here.
— STOP READING HERE IF YOU’RE SQUEAMISH —
Consider a giant python lounging in a tree digesting a big, delicious deer. The body of the deer remains in the snake’s digestive system for quite a long period of time, long enough to decompose rather thoroughly.
When mammals live, their stomach lining is protected by a continuously produced layer of mucus. When a mammal dies, the mucus disappears and the stomach acids begin to digest the stomach itself, along with all of the internal organs. The resulting gases that would have been expelled as flatulence now build up within the body, until it bursts. When the decomposing deer body bursts within the python, the gas is released all at once into the snake’s stomach, which causes the snake to burp out a burst of concentrated hydrogen.
Now visualize a band of hunters squatting around a fire at night, when a stray spark drifts past the mouth of the well-fed python during a burp and Voila! You have a fire-breathing monster.
You’d better believe that any hunters who witnessed this would never stop talking it for the rest of their lives! It’s just not an experience that anyone would be likely to forget. And so a legend would be born.
If animals as diverse as humans and snakes produce flammable gas, doesn’t it seem likely that other animals do too? Like iguanas. A fire-breathing iguana might look surprisingly like a dragon. I’ll be watching for the latest research.
Source: Gulp, by Mary Roach