It’s time…Dragon Week: Tokyo Drift is HERE!!! We’re kicking off our third iteration of a week dedicated to all things dragons with a seemingly simple question: do hippos count as dragons? Sarah Gailey, author of The Echo Wife and American Hippo, is here to give us their answer. Check it out below!
When I received the brief for this piece, I made the same mistake I always do — the mistake of thinking it would be easy. Do Hippos Count as Dragons feels like a very simple yes or no question, and I thought I knew what my answer would be. I thought that this would be easy even though actual taxonomists and evolutionary biologists — people who have real educations in these matters and think about them professionally — have historically struggled with the question of whether a hippo is a pig or a whale. I accepted the assignment to write this piece with the totally unearned confidence of a fiction writer.
But then I realized I don’t think I know what makes a dragon a dragon.
The problem with trying to define dragon is that dragon doesn’t describe a specific thing. There’s no reason to think dragons all have one common ancestor — they seem to evolve naturally across pretty much all human cultures, like how evolution eventually turns everything into a crab — so dragon isn’t a clade and doesn’t really fit into a cladistic classification structure. Taxonomically speaking, I guess dragon would be a class. Dragons definitely nest neatly into the phylum chordata — all dragons have spines, I think that’s pretty clear — but they don’t fit well into any existing class within that phylum. Some – but not all – dragons could classify as mammalian, by virtue of their long hairy beards. Other dragons are clearly reptilian, what with the scales. Sea dragons and river dragons could probably be considered fish, for all that the category ‘fish’ has meaning, which it doesn’t, but that’s beside the point. And then there are dragons that could be considered amphibious, if one grants consideration to dragons who bear strong resemblances to salamanders.
I could continue justifying this but I don’t have to, I get to make the rules here. Okay, so let’s consider dragon a class within the phylum chordata. What defines that class?
Well, that’s a question that is both very tricky and very simple. Are dragons warm-blooded or cold-blooded? Do they breathe air or water? Do they give birth to eggs or to live young? The good news is that there is no reliable or comprehensive data available on any of this. Dragon mythology and folklore is so widespread and diverse that pretty much every available dragon morphology and behavior is on the table. The other good news is that taxonomies are made-up! They are categories into which we sort creatures that we decide are same-y. A big snake with three-clawed feet that shoots fire out of its armpits? Dragon. A scaly horse with dots of curly hair on its back that can walk on water? Dragon! A giant snake with the face of a man who can create night or day by opening or closing his eyes? Great news: that’s a dragon.
My scientific conclusion is that the class dragon is defined largely by vibe. Fortunately, I am currently the boss of dragon science, so — as is often the case with taxonomic science! — I get to use my own totally subjective and arbitrary opinions to determine who gets to be part of the class dragon. Dragons are mysterious yet still connected to the physical realm. They’re powerful but also vulnerable. They’re frightening and dangerous, but still charismatic. It’s hard to know where you stand with a dragon, and they’re highly mutable.
Let’s see if that works. A six-foot-tall featherless biped that lives primarily on land, is incapable of flight, has small mostly-flat teeth and no body armor to speak of, that gives birth to varying quantities of live young? Not terribly frightening or mysterious. So, a human doesn’t feel very dragon.
What about a small aquatic spheroid creature that’s covered in spikes, travels in herds, and eats massive quantities of kelp? Mysterious, yes, but not terribly powerful or charismatic. Plus there’s the whole spine thing. So, great, a sea urchin probably doesn’t count as a dragon. I have tested two species against this method of categorization and I think that is more than enough rigor to say that my method is flawless.
Now let’s try this one: a massive tusked creature that lives in the water but emerges to feed and to commit totally unpredictable acts of terrible violence, that has cute ears and terrifying tusks, that emits something called ‘blood sweat,’ and which has only recently been recognized as an opportunistic (let’s be honest with each other: recreational) carnivore by the greater scientific community?
Hippos are mysterious in their habits, yet are still very clearly grounded to the physical realm. They’re incredibly powerful. They’re frightening and dangerous, but judging by the number of people who circulate videos of Baby Fiona, still charismatic. It’s hard to know where you stand with a hippo until the hippo decides it’s your time to die.
That sure sounds like a dragon to me.
Hugo Award-winning and bestselling author Sarah Gailey is the author of the novels The Echo Wife and Magic for Liars. Their nonfiction has been published by Mashable and The Boston Globe, and they won a Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer. Their fiction credits also include Vice and The Atlantic. Their debut novella, River of Teeth, was a 2018 finalist for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards.
Order American Hippo Here: