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I like the classic trope of dragons loving gold and collecting it in their lair, yet it seems poorly justified. I know that it is often used as a metaphor for greed; "dragons disease" to show how material wealth corrupts people. I would like the same behavior in my dragons, but with a realistic and scientifically plausible explanation.

Dragons in my setting are a bit different than classic dragons. Think of a Quetzalcoatlus, somewhat larger (up to 50%), wider wings, shorter neck, more dragon-like head, a longer tail, strong regeneration ability (common for monsters in the setting as it is a post-apocalyptic-modern-fantasy setting and without it, an AK-74 will counter most big monsters), ill-tempered and a living napalm thrower. They are quite clever, but nowhere near human-level intelligence. Males are less aggressive, smaller and roam the countryside. Females are very territorial and have lairs, a nest and the surrounding regions which are death-zones. They use a quantity-based reproduction system. The female lays dozens of eggs and the small dragons are left alone to fend for themselves, resulting in them hunting down everything they can find and even resorting to cannibalism to sustain their fast growth. The few survivors then continue to develop wings and usually leave the area. Quetzalcoatlus

So why would these dragon lairs usually contain big collections of shiny stuff? Note that shiny stuff does not necessarily mean gold, but what we would call a garbage dump. Copper pipes, car parts, aluminum foil, knives. As long as it is shiny it can be found in a dragon lair.

Now dragons did not evolve in our world (the setting is actually our world) but were transported here by the same event which brought magic into our world. So why do dragons, which evolved in a wild world with nothing but untouched nature, start collecting shiny garbage dumps in their lairs once they come into our world?

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Maybe they could have mating rituals like bowerbirds, in which the males, as part of their courtship display, strive to create visually interesting displays outside their bower (the hut-like structure they build for females to come in and mate with them). As the wikipedia article says:

In and around the bower, the male places a variety of brightly colored objects he has collected. These objects – usually different among each species – may include hundreds of shells, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones, berries, and even discarded plastic items, coins, nails, rifle shells, or pieces of glass. The males spend hours arranging this collection. Bowers within a species share a general form but do show significant variation, and the collection of objects reflects the biases of males of each species and its ability to procure items from the habitat, often stealing them from neighboring bowers. Several studies of different species have shown that colors of decorations males use on their bowers match the preferences of females.

A couple of David Attenborough videos on bowerbirds, showing their displays with different colorful items arranged in aesthetic ways:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GPbWJPsBPdA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1zmfTr2d4c

And this one shows how bowerbirds will sometimes incorporate colorful bits of human litter into their displays:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_H9TyXiXM2k&t=1m18s

Also, this article talks about evidence they arrange items of different sizes to create something like a forced perspective illusion to make their bowers displays look bigger, while this one suggests all male bowerbirds will create the same kind of gradients when given the same items to make the display, so in this case at least this skill seems to be something innate rather than something learned by watching others.

So, your dragons might have a similarly finely-tuned aesthetic sense in creating the same kind of displays for mating purposes, but perhaps they would be especially attracted to shiny objects, like iridescent shells of beetle-like creatures, or even crystals or bits of ore that can be found in their natural environment.

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  • $\begingroup$ + 1 for the hilarious Bowerbird videos by Attenborough. I love those birds. :D $\endgroup$ – fgysin reinstate Monica Aug 8 at 11:49
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To bring maternity food in close to their nest so that the brooding mother doesn't need to go very far to eat. The gems and gold are best because they attract not only the bigger hard shelled "warriors" but also the smaller, tender morsels called "thieves", which are great for feeding the hatch-lings.

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    $\begingroup$ How did this habit develop on their homeworld, where there are no intelligent species to steal from them? $\endgroup$ – TheDyingOfLight Aug 5 at 9:15
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    $\begingroup$ Not all species which ware attracted to shiny things are intelligent. Squirrels and nest-building birds also like a little glitter. So the habit developed because some tasty life form on their home world liked a little glitter. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Aug 5 at 12:16
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    $\begingroup$ The shininess of their loot pile is a coincidence. The important quality is that it's a stark contrast to the death zone surrounding their lair. Think of it like the opposite of camouflage. Contrast grabs your attention, and any creature with even a weak sense of curiosity would be drawn to investigate. If your young sometimes have to resort to cannibalism, there's a strong survival advantage to drawing in as many victims as possible. The dragons try to create as strong a contrast as possible and on your world, that happens to be through shiny things. $\endgroup$ – bta Aug 6 at 0:29
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Hoarding for the sake of attracting a mate is one possible reason. Still, it's hard to picture them picking gold and gems specifically when they don't have the means to extract them, at least not without some other cause.

Let's try giving your dragons a practical reason for hoarding, then, one directly tied to their survival; this assumes they have scales. They're going to be drawn to shiny gold and gems, but more generally metal of all sorts, because they need to eat the stuff to survive. All those legends of nigh-impenetrable dragon hides suddenly make sense, because the scales are literally made of metal! The dragons gobble the gold up and digest it into materials for their scales, with any leftovers hoarded against times when metal is hard to find. A poor dragon is readily visible: thinning scales that shatter easily, possibly even patches where they fell out and were not replaced, etc. A dragon without a hoard is soon a dragon exposed to claws and arrows and so forth; that's obviously not a prospect conducive to survival.

For the curious, my inspiration for this idea came from the Age of Fire book series, where fire-breathing dragons often end up in conflict with the local humans, dwarves, etc., in no small part because they want those precious metals, and a dragon without strong scales is very quickly going to be filled with arrows.

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    $\begingroup$ How are you thinking they were able to extract gold and gems in the world they evolved in, before they were transported to our world where they could steal them from beings like humans? $\endgroup$ – Hypnosifl Aug 5 at 7:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Hypnosifl Answering that one is admittedly tough, at least without modifying the dragons in question; I was going on the assumption that these dragons were reliant on humans extracting the metals and conveniently forging them into coins, etc. Perhaps introducing some new prey creature that can do it for them (and then be devoured), maybe via some acidic saliva or whatever? $\endgroup$ – Palarran Aug 5 at 13:08
  • $\begingroup$ I do like the idea of the metal contributing to the scales. What's the difference between a copper dragon and a gold dragon? Well, one has a diet rich in copper . . . $\endgroup$ – EightyEighty Aug 5 at 15:27
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    $\begingroup$ Why wouldn't dragons have the means to extract them? They should be able to do so the same way humans do- by burrowing into mountains, unearthing gems and purifying metal ore with high temperatures (i.e. dragon flame). Interaction with humans simply makes their lives easier as they can now steal their food instead of spending energy excavating it. $\endgroup$ – jmbpiano Aug 6 at 15:34
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Psychological reason: after the eggs have been laid, the mother uses her flames to keep them warm during the incubation.

While the fetus develops in the egg, from the very moment it develop eyes, it is constantly exposed to the translucent light of the flame, seeping through the egg shell. That light means warmth, means growth, means feeling better.

As an adult the dragon will long for gold because, with its color, it triggers subconscious memories of the incubation period. What else would you need when you want to nap and feel good?

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    $\begingroup$ Prenatal comforters tend to decline with age. I do however like this as a way for mother dragons to calm their young; so, females could line the nest with gold, the same way human mothers swaddle, rock, and shush their infants to keep them happy. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Aug 6 at 15:13
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    $\begingroup$ Follow up to this, gold is an excellent reflector of infrared radiation, possibly the best there is, which may be useful in keeping eggs warm by reflection the parents heat, by lining a wall or something $\endgroup$ – Richie Frame Aug 7 at 1:46
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The strongest substance in nature is goethite, the material that makes up Limpet teeth. It's basically an organic nanofiber substance that is infused with iron which the limpet gets plenty of by scraping rocks for algae. On the dragon homeworld, the ancestors of dragons had similar teeth for burrowing to dig prey out of small, iron rich caves. As dragons continued to evolve, they began developing goethite in their scales as well. This would make their scales even stronger than kevlar, but their teeth were no longer able to absorb enough iron to keep up with the wear and tear of eating rocks if their scales started using too much of it.

This led to 3 additional adaptations:

1 - They could use other metals when iron was not plentiful enough. Gold, tin, copper, silver, titanium, aluminum, etc. could be absorbed into the scales while the iron stayed mostly in the teeth. These substitute metals were not as good as iron, but still made their scales much tougher than most natural materials. This leads to the various metallic sheens of dragons.

2 - A natural attraction to a lustrous environment. If the ground sparkled a little, it meant there was enough natural ore to keep them healthy. Those that did not live in sparkly environments began to die of malnutrition when their teeth started falling out. As such, seeing things sparkle gives an instinctive feeling of comfort and security to a dragon; so, in our world where there is much more metal than they can eat thanks to the mining and refinement efforts of man, they gather excess metals and other lustrous things around them because it makes them feel good.

3 - Fire breath. Metal can be made soft through the process of annealing. This is where you heat the metal, and slowly cool it. When a dragon finds a choice ore, he will use his breath to "cook" it so that he can consume it without having to wear out his teeth so much.

A fun side note: Under these circumstances, gold specifically could be treated like a sugary treat to dragons. It's softness makes it tasty because dragons prefer to eat annealed metals, and it's luster makes it look tasty because (shiny = yummy). However, it's really not good for their health because it weighs them down and softens their scales.

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Let's look at where this is found in the world we know: ravens. From Wikipedia (emphasis mine):

Common ravens are known to steal and cache shiny objects such as pebbles, pieces of metal, and golf balls. One theory is that they hoard shiny objects to impress other ravens. Other research indicates that juveniles are deeply curious about all new things, and that common ravens retain an attraction to bright, round objects based on their similarity to bird eggs. Mature birds lose their intense interest in the unusual, and become highly neophobic.

Since there's an evolutionary link between birds and dinosaurs/lizards/dragons it's an easy leap to tie the common behavior to the same evolutionary ancestor.

But your din... liz... dragons aren't from this world. (Are you sure they represent the first time species have crossed the world boundaries?) Still, the reasons could be the same.

I think we can discount the "to impress other dragons" theory. No self-respecting dragon is going to invite another dragon back to its den to see its etchings hoard. That would turn into a battle royale when the other dragon's hoarding instinct kicked in.

No, dragons are driven to collect round shiny things by the same instinct which makes them police their clutches to make sure none of the eggs roll out of the nest. They see something round and shiny (egg-like) and they just have to get it back to the nest.

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  • $\begingroup$ To be fair, the dragons described don't seem like an unlikely candidate to invite a suitor back to her den for some quick mating followed by a meal (on him). Besides, the males being roamers seems to make them less likely to have hoarding instincts in the first place. $\endgroup$ – Muuski Aug 5 at 20:11
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    $\begingroup$ To expand with one more data point on the bird-dinosaur connection: chickens (quite curious birds themselves) seem to tend to peck at shiny things, probably due to the similarity to water. This helps, for instance, to get them to drink from chick nipples*, which are valves often manufactured from stainless steel. * = For obvious reasons, do not google the term, especially at work. $\endgroup$ – fr13d Aug 7 at 10:41
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To prove their worth

"Undoubtedly that was what brought the dragons. Dragons steal gold and jewels, you know, from men and elves and dwarves, wherever they can find them; and they guard their plunder as long as they live (which is practically forever, unless they are killed), and never enjoy a brass ring of it. Indeed they hardly know a good bit of work from a bad, though they usually have a good notion of the current market value; and they can't make a thing for themselves, not even mend a little loose scale of their armor." - Thorin Oakenshield, The Hobbit or There and Back Again

The quote is a prelude to a psychological approach, the answer does not work unless the dragons in question possess a quantity of intelligence, and that is that dragon wants gold or shiny things because the dragon recognizes it as a sign of wealth. All animals like competing within their species to prove dominance and wealth is a crude, yet effective measure. Of course, wealth means different things to different species. To dragons, a species which destroys but does not create, wealth means acquiring things other races (men, elves, dwarves) built by using their force. Shiny objects are rare in nature, they are (as observed from your list) almost entirely artificial, or even in the event that they are naturally found (such as gemstones and gold) they are quite rare. Thus, having a sizable stock inherently proves a dragon's worth, and should a dragon find another dragon with a lair and hoard greater than that dragon, he should flee at once.

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If you own a cat, you'll know that it's nearly impossible to have something shiny/lighted laying around that the cat won't claim for themselves. If they don't hide it away, they'll play with it and even try to eat it. Think Christmas trees or knickknacks.

If you fish, you'll notice that a lot of lures are shiny to attract the fish to bite on the hook.

If you're a lady, you'll know that any shiny jewelry is likely to get your attention. This also goes for men, realizing that getting his lady to move from a display of shiny jewelry is nearly impossible. Lots of men also like the shiny jewelry of a woman.

If you're a nerd or simply ADHD, you'll know that anything sufficiently "new & shiny" and/or LED encrusted is likely to gain your attention.

There's plenty of other examples of animals and people liking shiny things (My precious) simply because they are shiny. This is part of being a predator and being attracted to contrasts in light, which can show prey or danger. I humans, we also conflate that with wealth.

Metals such as gold, aluminum, and silver don't tarnish (or at least not much), and will maintain their ability to reflect light "forever". Other materials such as bronze/copper, glass, jewels, and more are highly reflective, or even prismatic, for quite a while, until their surfaces are sufficiently scratched or corroded.

One other thing to think about: Since dragons live in dark caves, they may want to lighten the place up. Ancient Egyptians and other cultures used a series of mirrors to redirect sunlight down into underground chambers. A sufficiently intelligent race of dragons could also learn or discover how to do this.

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I'm thinking it could be down to intimidation of enemies, attraction of mates, and useful nesting properties.

The common trope as you've mentioned is that dragons hoard wealth - specifically gold. Gold has a number of properties that a posturing dragon could make use of. It's very shiny and reflective, so any fire-based displays from a dragon (gouts of flame for intimidation, or mating rituals, etc.) would be reflected from the gold - the more gold, and the higher quality your hoard, the more light would shine into the area and the more impressive your display could be. Such a display could be used for either intimidation of interlopers or for impressing a prospective mate.

In addition, gold is a pretty good conductor of heat. It's not going to burn, but it could be a useful method of distributing heat around a nest of eggs to incubate them. Depending on how intelligent they are in your world, they may also have learned to shape the gold by using sustained flame to soften it.

Gold also has the benefit of not tarnishing. If the females are highly territorial, then they may prefer their hoard to have longevity, and gold does not rust or oxidise like other metals.

Gold would therefore be the preferred choice - however, it may not be as abundant on this world compared to their home world. Their home world may have had abundant natural veins of gold, whereas this world does not. As such, dragons would still show preference for gold, but if there's a poor supply in the local area they may resort to other metals and shiny objects as a poor-man's substitute - hence the collection of items such as copper pipes, car parts, etc. They may not be gold, and they may not last, but they might be the best the dragon can get for reflecting light and conducting heat.

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  1. Pride. The book of Job speaks of the scaly, fire-breathing beast Leviathan that laughs at the spears of his foes. A creature that is prideful likes his bling.

  2. Bait to attract more prey. Humans and some animals like shiny things and are adventurous and will sometimes risk life and limb to obtain treasure. A creature that is consumed with pride in its own prowess is prone to delight in destroying humans (as chronicled in Beowulf), while almost all other creatures bow to human dominion. The massacre of treasure-seeking humans falling into its trap fuels its sense of pride.

  3. As moths to flames. Psychological and perhaps inborn neurological, this effect is irrational. Moths often kill themselves to be in the brightest spot.

  4. While the first two are evil habits, the third is naive. Perhaps there is some utility or mutual benefit to humankind in its habit if one were to find a benign or friendly such creature. Humans killing all such creatures on account of their tendency for (1) and (2) would hamper the discovery of such uses.

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    $\begingroup$ Moths aren't irrational. They die due to a navigational glitch which assumes the moon is the only light source at night. When that assumption started becoming untrue with human flames, moths started dying in them. $\endgroup$ – Muuski Aug 5 at 20:03
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Besides gold, silver and copper being a representation of their worth these precious metals are soft. The perfect thing for a large creature to make a nest, especially if they can breath fire because they would easily be able to melt it.

My pig used to roll on a pile of trash/glass because it loved scratching parts of its back it could never reach. Dragons would get a lot of utility out of soft metals, this logic goes back many years and is not my own original answer.

Gold, silver and copper are not shiny if you don't take care of it. Dragons aren't collecting it like crows.

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  • $\begingroup$ gold and copper melt at 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, silver about 200 degrees less, that is pretty high for fire breath, if they cold exhale purified oxygen and acetylene gas, they could easily melt it though $\endgroup$ – Richie Frame Aug 7 at 1:51
  • $\begingroup$ I guess melting and bending are two different things, their weight alone could bend the soft metal. With their hard scales it makes it the perfect thing to nest in. And if they want it even softer to mend they just gotta add a little heat, they don't gotta get to the 2000 point. $\endgroup$ – Jeffyx Aug 7 at 12:08
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In their original environment, they needed a trace element which is plentiful here.

It was only found in mineral form in shiny rocks.

As a refinement on the idea, say it's used in the growth cycle so adults don't need to consume it but want it hoarded for their volume-based reproductive system.

The dragons don't understand any of this, just the instinct to hoard shiny.

This answer could be used to explain why some areas are plagued by hatchlings and in others, hatchlings don't survive and so there's a regular cycle of no dragons in a place, then adults moving in but they don't reproduce.

This answer inspired by a similar trace-element reason why Treecats in David Weber's Honor Harrington series crave Earth celery. In their case, the natural source of the element was not very pleasant to eat.

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Caves are dark. Shiny stuff reflects light. Dragons breathe fire. In an empty cave your fire breath will light only close area. With shiny stuff put near each wall and obstacle, small flicker of fire will give you good understanding how the cave looks.

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I think part of your problem lies in the stipulation that the dragons are sexually dimorphic- in most species, the male is generally more expendable than the female and must fight for, or otherwise earn the right to copulate. Generally one would expect a selective pressure for bigger and more aggressive males if this were the case, but your dragon males are smaller, less aggressive and don't hold a territory. If only the females have lairs, then generally only the females will be able to hoard treasure beyond simply swallowing shiny things and keeping them in a stomach/equivalent (a difficult practice for animals that have to be light and capable of flight); thus we are lead to the question: why would the females evolve to hoard treasure?

Why Hoard Treasure?

1: Collecting and guarding a large number of interesting things is proof of good health and competitive ability among females in order to either A: attract a mate or B: intimidate rivals.

2: Dragons fulfill a dietary requirement from Shiny Stuff commonly found on their home planet, be it from natural mineral formations or the bodies of other organisms (could be prey species or dragons concentrating minerals in certain parts of their body). They can't distinguish between Shiny Stuff beyond it simply being shiny, so they just collect everything and hoard the stuff they can't digest, which conveniently happens to include a lot of man made objects, resulting in piles of "treasure" collecting in most female lairs.

So, we've established some reasons a female might want to hoard treasure, now we need to work out why only the females need/want a big pile and how they get it. I've listed some workable male-female breeding dynamics below:

Monogamy: It's perhaps a little unlikely given their lonesome nature, but it's possible that male and female dragons form a pair bond at some stage in development after leaving their mother's territory- paired males would then roam around collecting Shiny Stuff, which the females need to eat lots of in order to continue producing healthy eggs.

Monogamy is fairly common among birds, which are probably the closest earth analogy to your dragons. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monogamy_in_animals

Choosy Female:

If the treasure isn't required to attract a male, it seems most likely that again, it's a dietary requirement and the males must offer appropriate (shiny) tribute in order to mate.

Choosy Male:

There would have to be a good reason for a male to afford selectivity in picking its mate- some kind of time or energy commitment above the female. Perhaps the female lays its clutch of eggs and abandons them to the male's care and protection until they've hatched. A female with a larger pile of treasure indicates greater strength and a more bountiful territory for the male's offspring.

I don't think there's any one right answer to your question, so it's really up to you, what kind of story you wish to write and the role your dragons are going to play in it. Given the dragons come from a different planet you can really afford to be a little more creative and pick less plausible (from an earthling's perspective) behavior if you feel they suit the story!

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To harden their eggs; once that period of the year comes around, all female dragons collect metals. Bold adventurers and knights usually bring the highest quality metals, and to lure them to your neat little cave you need something that attracts them: precious objects and metals.

Possibly reason for the need to harden the eggs: the eggs are part of a delicious dish which is prepared once a year. Local towns gather up teams to sneak inside the caves and steal the eggs / tap the eggs.

The more metal on the eggs' shell, the harder it is for the villagers to steal. You could add an incubation time of several years as well.

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    $\begingroup$ Gold is one of the softest metals around, though $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Aug 5 at 14:37
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    $\begingroup$ but it is heavy and easy to melt, so it could make a perfect anchor to keep scavengers from trying to run off with them while not being too hard for the baby dragon to break out of. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Aug 5 at 18:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki indeed, gold is absurdly heavy, and not toxic like lead. It weighs 19 times as much as water for the same volume... a gallon jug of gold would weigh 161 pounds! $\endgroup$ – Richie Frame Aug 7 at 1:59
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I read once that dragons like gold because its soft (relatively speaking) and with its other properties able to provide a nice, non-flammable, easily squished in to shape (if you're a heavy, and hot dragon). So they want it the same way you want a pillow.

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Consider pelagic seabirds. They evolved in a world where anything floating in the water was food. Hurry! Swoop down, swallow it, it's got nutritional value. Digest it or regurgitate it for your chicks. If it floats, it's food.

Seabirds did not evolve for a world with plastic floating in the ocean. :-( Ref.

Now consider your dragons. They did not evolve in or for this world. Their love of shiny metal, shiny trinkets, broken mirrors... they live in nests full of junk, but on their home planet, the only common shiny things are the shells of scavenger beetles, which are needed to keep the nest of a carnivore clean.

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Plot twist: They don't actually like shiny things

Shiny things reflect light, which hurts their eyes. Dragons are also smart. They've learned that destroying and/or burying shiny things doesn't help in the long run. Humans are good at recycling and unburying stuff.

The solution: put the shiny things out of humans' reach: store them in caves where they can't reflect sunlight, and guard the treasure yourself.

While the solution may be risky, few humans have the courage to venture into a dragon's lair, and even fewer can hurt or kill dragons. Guarding the treasure may not even be strictly necessary. Humans know dragons like to steal and hoard gold and silver (and other shiny stuff), so they know to stay out of a dragon's way.

With dragons no longer getting blinded and humans no longer getting robbed, a relatively peaceful coexistence can be achieved... until they encounter the humans of our world, armed with nukes and spice and all things nice, that is.

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At the, shall we say, other end of the spectrum, maybe they make the shiny stuff and never get rid of it. I saw a setting once where dragon lairs had lots of gemstones lying around because dragons poop gemstones. (The biology of how this works is left as an exercise.)

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