Despite the stunning CGI effects on view in the latest episode of HBO's "Game of Thrones" sword-and-sorcery series, giant flying dragons don't exist. But if they did, could a dragon queen ride them?
The question doesn't apply merely to Queen Daenerys' dragons, but also to the giant eagles in "The Lord of the Rings" and the pterosaurs in the "Jurassic Park" movies. Based on some off-the-cuff calculations, your best bet is to ride the pterosaurs.
"The 'Lord of the Ring' eagles would have more of a problem" than pterosaurs — or even dragons — when it comes to bearing theoretical burdens, said Michael Habib, a paleontologist at the University of Southern California who specializes in prehistoric flight dynamics.
That's because of the way different animals are built for flight: Eagles rank among the most powerful modern-day fliers, but a lot of their musculature goes into the legs and talons as well as the wings. If you scaled up an eagle's wings for Hobbit-carrying capability, you'd have to scale up all that extra bulk as well.
More than 65 million years ago, the biggest pterosaurs — which might have been Quetzalcoatlus or Hatzegopteryx — were better-built for pure flight: Not only did they have a bigger wingspan (more than 35 feet vs. 8 feet for real-life eagles), but their wings were also made of lightweight membranes rather than feathers over flesh.
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Habib's calculations suggest that a pterosaur's wings could lift a maximum of 500 pounds, maybe more. That's close to the creature's estimated weight — but if the creature had a slightly more efficient build than the anatomical models suggest, carrying a 100-pound human would be within the realm of possibility.
"The physics does not actually prevent a rideable flying animal from existing, but it has to be a specific type of flying animal," Habib said. "The physics does prevent a 20-ton dragon from existing."
Even if pterosaurs co-existed with humans — which they didn't — staying on top of the reptile would tax the best rodeo rider. Aerodynamic modeling suggests that pterosaurs didn't necessarily take off with a running start, as Daenerys' dragon did on "Game of Thrones." Instead, the current leading hypothesis is that pterosaurs used their winged limbs to push off the ground for a leaping launch.
"You'd have to be really strapped in," Habib said.
Have there been any documented cases of birds taking humans for a ride? A couple of years ago, Canadian animation students created a viral video hoax that made it look as if an eagle was pulling a toddler off the ground — but the real-life evidence for baby-grabbing birds is sketchy at best. Even the biggest birds of prey can lift no more than a few pounds into the air.
So the next time you see a dragon carrying off a fair maiden, rest assured that you're watching magic at work — either the age-old magic of Westeros and the stranger realms to the east, or the newfangled magic of Hollywood special effects.
Update for 5:15 p.m. ET June 9: On the subject of an eagle's carrying capacity, Oscar Macias Ramirez points to this video from the late documentary filmmaker Felix Rodriguez de la Fuente, which shows a golden eagle pulling a kid goat off a cliff. The video was remarkable enough to draw comment from evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne a couple of years ago. It seems unlikely that the eagle could have lifted the goat up into the air; nevertheless, the video demonstrates that this is one bird you don't want to mess with.
For still more scientific angles on "Game of Thrones," check out our reality checks on the zombie zeitgeist, death by being burned alive, freakishly long winters, head transplants, lingering diseases and supposedly painless poisons. Got questions about "GoT"? Flag them with the Twitter hashtag #GOTscience.