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So since there’s that pesky thing called the square cube law, it’s pretty universally accepted that large dragons have no chance at actual flight. However, all is not lost for the concept of giant winged reptiles! At least so I hope.

So baby dragons would use their wings to fly, thus keeping their original purpose. However, as they get larger the wings, even if they were absolutely massive, would not be sufficient for actual flight, and would instead enable the dragon to glide, increase jump height, etc.

My question is what can truly massive dragons use their wings for? Think dragons the size of Smaug from the Hobbit movies or larger. These beasts have no chance at any kind of flight, and I don’t really see gliding as a great option either.

For some additional information, no magic is at work here, though I will accept the dragons being tougher and stronger than current biology would suggest. These dragons are different species, and live in a range of biomes, but for this question I will narrow it to a specific dragon I have in mind.

The Titan Dragon is massive, with lengths of up to two miles and weighing hundreds of tons. Their massive size was previously thought to be completely impossible for any terrestrial animal, but somehow the dragon still grows to such an incredible scale. Most of its time is spent asleep, absorbing nutrients from the air, water, soil, and stone around it. When it is awake, however, it is immensely powerful and dangerous, with a breath attack that is either a massive flaming blast, or an equally powerful blast of supercooled gas. Their wingspan is often larger than the length of their body, however they are completely incapable of flight.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Samuel, sphennings, dot_Sp0T, Draco18s, HDE 226868 Mar 2 '18 at 4:26

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ lengths of up to two miles and weighing hundreds of tons Suspension of disbelief would be easier if you said "millions of tons". For comparison, Titanic was 882 feet long and weighted 60,000 metric tons. $\endgroup$ – Renan Feb 28 '18 at 19:24
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    $\begingroup$ Well, if you can figure out what T. Rex's arms were for, that might be a place to start... $\endgroup$ – RBarryYoung Feb 28 '18 at 19:46
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    $\begingroup$ Sofa covers? Windowshades? $\endgroup$ – Spencer Feb 28 '18 at 23:50
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    $\begingroup$ I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because every answer that involves dragon wings is equally valid. There are zero criteria for selecting a "correct" answer. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Mar 1 '18 at 0:27
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    $\begingroup$ Steering - for the truly huge dragons that can nevertheless fly: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Flight_of_Dragons_(book) $\endgroup$ – Logan Pickup Mar 1 '18 at 6:44

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Some uses for non-flying Dragon Wings

  1. Fan a flame
  2. Stabilize the Dragon while chasing someone/thing down (run on two legs, grab with 2 claws, pump wings like how humans pump arms when running)
  3. Regulate Heat (too hot? spread out your wings, too cold? wrap your wings around you like a blanket, or even blanket your young)
  4. Provide shade to lesser beings
  5. Protection (When those humans are slinging their primitive spells or attempting to shoot you with arrows, the wings can be used to shield your more important fleshy parts from damage)
  6. Dragon Status Symbol (You can always tell how attractive a dragon is by the color/pattern that is seen on the wings. As unique as a fingerprint. )
  7. Displays of aggression and displays of prowess (mating displays) - from ikegami

    also, useful image provided by ikegami enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for 4, you could have an entire eco system under the wings of a 2 mile long dragon! $\endgroup$ – Reed Feb 28 '18 at 21:36
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    $\begingroup$ A lizard that large does need some method to lose extra heat from metabolism. Maybe the "breath weapon" is just the dragon having very hot breath when it has to move? I think we forgot that alternative in discussing breath weapons before. Using some kind of heat pump to cool the blood by heating outgoing air might make more sense than exotic chemical reactions. And it would hurt a lot if you got hit by it. But yeah (back on topic) using the wings as radiators would make sense, some large animals have actually used similar solution. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Feb 28 '18 at 22:38
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    $\begingroup$ I like #3, it's the same reason elephants have such big ears is it not $\endgroup$ – nagamani Mar 1 '18 at 1:54
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    $\begingroup$ Heat regulation and protection applies not to just itself, but to its charges. pbase.com/image/96430374 $\endgroup$ – ikegami Mar 1 '18 at 17:03
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    $\begingroup$ The only thing really missing from that list is displays of aggression and displays of prowess (mating displays). $\endgroup$ – ikegami Mar 1 '18 at 17:07
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Protecting their young

A mommy dragon will want to make sure that her cute, little (read: house-sized) baby dragons are safe from dangerous things like sticks (read: lances and swords from wanna-be heroes) and heat (read: her breath attack when she is barbecuing previously mentioned wanna-be heroes). The young can hide under her enormous wings and be completely safe as they are built to withstand her own powers and obviously little sticks are no harm to an adult dragon.

The wings also serve to protect the little ones from the elements such as rain and wind (read: the storms that accompany the greatest wyrms on Earth wherever they go) or small stones (read: the cave collapsing - those oh-so-smart wanna-be heroes can be difficult to handle).

In a pinch they can be used as defense against resilient foes (read: wanna-be mages with a Potion of fire resistance... pesky stuff) by flapping them and creating a lot of non-magical wind for a great distance. Or by flapping them directly against them.

Ever been hit by a giant wing? Probably not, or you wouldn't be reading this.

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  • $\begingroup$ I love this answer! It adds depth to your world if you let the baby dragons fly, but not older brooding dragons. $\endgroup$ – Ryan The Leach Mar 1 '18 at 5:56
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Other uses of wings other than flying are:

Swimming, diving (penguins)

Threatening by appearing bigger (owls)

Threatening by making noise (chickadee)

Directly in combat (swans)

The black heron even uses them to cast a shadow to hunt better click

Ok, there are so many things, I'm not gonna include more examples: They can be used for balance, to do various things during breeding and last but not least to impress the ladies

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    $\begingroup$ To be fair, I think #2 is irrelevant for a dragon that is 2 miles long... $\endgroup$ – Doktor J Mar 1 '18 at 20:50
  • $\begingroup$ @DoktorJ Perhaps in many circumstances, but not when facing another dragon that doesn't have as nice wing genetics and thus appears a bit smaller $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Mar 1 '18 at 21:42
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With a creature that massive, overheating would become a concern - that same pesky square cube law. The wide-spread wings of an adult dragon might be used to dissipate heat, in much the same way that elephants and jackrabbits use the large surface area of their ears for cooling.

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Photosynthesis. A dragon of that size is going to struggle to find sufficient prey or fodder so they augment their diet using chloroplasts in their wings.

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  • $\begingroup$ I love this idea... can be combined with the thermal regulation as well -- spread your wings to catch sunlight and photosynthesize, at the same time moving massive quantities of air to draw off all that excess heat such a huge body would be generating! $\endgroup$ – Doktor J Mar 1 '18 at 20:53
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The most important use of wings for a sauropod or whale sized dragon incapable of flight would be heat regulation, getting rid of excess body heat. Especially if they somehow have fire inside!

Elephants don't like to exert themselves too much because that builds up body heat. So they move slowly and calmly except when excited. I saw a video where a bull African elephant pushed over a tree. He nudged the tree a few times from different angles, and thought for a while, and then suddenly pushed the tree over with a smooth easy motion.

If a dragon is many times as massive as an elephant, it will need to avoid overheating even more, and the vast areas of thin flesh in the wings would be ideal for losing body heat fast.

And of course wings would be great for displays during mating season or to intimidate rivals in potential fight situations.

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Absorptive surface area

From OP

Most of its time is spent asleep, absorbing nutrients from the air, water, soil, and stone around it.

That is different. If you are absorbing stuff from the environment, you want to maximize your interface with the environment. The huge surface area of the wings could do just that.

The dragon might have to sleep with wings flush on the ground and legs up in the air, which is not that dignified for the mighty dragon.

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When a mommy dragon sees a daddy dragon with nice wings ....

Many animals use displays to gain mates, why would dragons be any different.

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Shade. The top/outside of a dragon's wing may be reflective, making the underside much cooler, allowing the dragon to stay cool. The reflective surface might also prove useful in battle, or mating, as mentioned above.

Depending on their durability, I can imagine towns popping up under the shade of a dead dragon's wing.

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What is the use of a chicken's wings? (Apart from being fried in a spicy batter.) It's just there because evolution hasn't done away with it yet. But give it a few millennia and it might (once humans stop selectively breeding them, that is).

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    $\begingroup$ I don't suppose you've ever noticed that chickens can fly, have you? They're not great at it, sure, but they definitely can get up to elevated perches relatively safe from ground-level predators. Commercial poultry only can't fly because they've been fattened up to ludicrous proportions and are put in cramped spaces with nowhere to fly. $\endgroup$ – Doktor J Mar 1 '18 at 20:55
  • $\begingroup$ They aren't great at it because the ancestors of chickens (red junglefowl) live in foresty areas and they the trees restrict their flight. So nature probably decided they no longer need their wings to fly, which probably made them ideal birds to be domesticated. This trend will probably continue as long as they still live in forests. $\endgroup$ – Real Subtle Mar 2 '18 at 10:21
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As creatures between the realms of fantasy and reality, dragons are obviously able to access things just beyond normal senses, especially as they grow older and more ludicrous (in regards to normal square cube physics). Hence, adult dragon wings are eventually able to actually pull against dark matter, creating antigravitational ripples and thus lift at an order of magnitude above that of wings only able to push against atmospheric gases.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ohhh nice “just slight beyond” physics answer! $\endgroup$ – Nick Mar 1 '18 at 20:16
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Benefit doesn't need to change that drastically, can even just dimish in effect.

  1. Young: Can still be used to fly.
  2. Youth: Can be used to glide.
  3. Young Adult: Can be used as a jump assist.
  4. Adult: Effectively giant fins for swimming, like a penguin.

Also, worth noting, if your setting has multiple worlds, wings would work as normal on lower gravity worlds.

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Dragons of the opposite gender might find such a huge display very attractive. Sexual selection is a pretty powerful force and considering that these dragons likely have very few(or no) natural predators it’s not too far fetched for such a creature to expend the resources necessary.

In fact, if the dragons are able to absorb nutrients from their environment with very little effort and they don’t have any real predators Imgine that mates would be one of the very few things a dragon would have to worry about(at least without pesky humans). They would likely have extremely complex mating displays, moreso than even a peacock. A lot of their features could be explained using sexual selection

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You could add certain evolutionary alterations to the wings to give them some purpose.

  • The wings could develop marsupial-like sacks to carry young ones. When the mother tucks her wings in, the babies are safe from harm, and when they want to get out, they can just extend.
  • Dragons will have great momentum while running. The wings can be used like parachutes, to stop the dragon quickly if needed.
  • They could have spines or spikes, enabling the dragon to fight by swinging the wings around.
  • The wings could have mural-type decorations for mate attraction.
  • The wings could be used for swimming. For this purpose, they may evolve small air sacs, enabling the heavy dragon to remain afloat easily. It could also use the wings as oars to propel itself.

The possibilities are endless, really.

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