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Background: So, I'm creating a magic system for a race of dragons based on the abilities of the Oriental Hornet and the Elysia chlorotica. both of these animals can directly utilize solar energy. I plan to start with these real world inspired abilities for my dragons and add on a layer of fantasy magic. (plant manipulation, for example.)

Today I am asking about the species I am basing off of the Oriental Hornet's abilities. The Oriental hornet can apparently capture solar radiation with natural "solar cells" and the specific pigments on it's body. (I'm not an expert, the link above should clarify.) and then convert that solar energy to electrical energy.

So, for my dragons, I want to start with a real world function, exaggerate its usability, then add some magic on top. Naturally electric eels came to mind, as well as rays and sharks with their electrical field sensitivity. I also read in the articles that Oriental hornets may be using this energy to regulate their body temperature.

All this to say: if my dragon can generate a voltage like an eel, how could they turn that voltage into heat for keeping warm and/or heating outside objects (cooking food for example)? (I want it to be a natural process in the body. Answers do not have to be extremely realistic, but should have some connection in animal/plant biology.

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    $\begingroup$ From our help center, "To prevent your question from being flagged and possibly removed, avoid asking subjective questions where every answer is equally valid." You've provided no metric for judging a best answer (SE's model is one-specific-question/one-best-answer). Can you? We're more than willing to help you build your creature, but this appears to be asking us to build your creature for you because there's no way to judge whether "it makes the dragon glow!" is a better answer than "it powers their digestive system, and here's how...." (Fishing for ideas questions don't work well here.) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Apr 6, 2021 at 7:21
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    $\begingroup$ Let me say that another way. You're saying that, given A, what would B be? That's a tough nut on this site. On the other hand, we're very good at, Given A how do I get to B? So, were you to ask, "My dragons absorb solar radiation like the hornet and I want that energy to drive its digestive system, how could that work?" we're 90% of the way to a great question. We need something by which to judge a good answer in the form of expectations, limitations, and conditions. (I'm hoping that asking for this will keep the question from being closed as opinion-based or needing more details.) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Apr 6, 2021 at 7:26
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! That makes a lot of sense, I think I was blending two questions together unconsciously, hopefully the edit will clarify. $\endgroup$ Apr 6, 2021 at 16:07

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You've got three separate things here:

  • Taking energy directly from sunlight.
  • Generating an electrical current.
  • Generating radiant heat.

They're not necessarily related, and indeed they don't necessarily work well together.

For the first, you need to absorb a lot of sunlight. Photosynthesis isn't very efficient, and to make the most of it you'll need to be living somewhere very sunny. There have been various questions about photosynthetic animals on this site and elsewhere (there's this XKCD what if? that's probably worth a read) but the problems basically boil down to needing more energy than you can extract from the available surface area of the organism, and it being just a lot easier to outsource your photosynthesising to other organisms (like plants) and either eat them directly or let someone else do the hard work of breaking down awkward plant carbohydrates and eat those things instead (like any predator).

For the second, you'll probably want to be generating the electricity from stored energy, not directly from sunlight (because you might want to be able to use your superpowers at night when the sun is elsewhere, or in winter where solar irradiance might be low, or you might want to deliver more power than the sun could possibly deliver) and so you have to store energy and release it later. If you're doing this, you don't actually need to get the energy from solar power at all... in fact, given the whole problem with surface areas and availability of sunlight, you probably just want to eat things and use their calorific value to power your shocking skills. This works well for electric eels and torpedo rays and all the rest, after all.

Electric fish can generate a reasonable amount of power, perhaps as much as a kilowatt for the biggest and baddest examples in the real world, and that's plenty of juice for stunning or killing prey. Here's the thing though: cooking someone takes a lot of power (often many kilowatts) sustained for a considerable amount of time (many minutes, potentially) whereas shocking someone to death can be done with a much more modest power supply running for under a second.

And this is the third problem: generating radiant heat isn't too hard (resistive radiant heaters are efficient and simple, after all) but as a means of killing things it just isn't very good. Unless you've got some kind of organic laser, you're going to have a very short range, and large prey species are going to take a distressing amount of time to actually cook to death especially if they're furred or scaled or wear clothes! So you have to stand (or flap) there whilst some burning fluffy thing runs around frantically until it finally keels over or works out a way to escape or fight back. It just seems like it would be easier to just kill it in a more conventional way... requires far fewer calories, much more straightfoward.


What's to be done?

There's an obvious and classic solution to generating heat from sunlight, and that is to grow sugar-rich plants, pulp them, ferment the pulp and distill the resulting juice to generate ethanol and set that on fire. Perhaps rum or vodka dragons aren't quite what you're after, though.

Electrical powers are perhaps just not very good for aerial dragons, but for partially or wholly aquatic creatures they may be much more useful. Not solar powered, perhaps, but electroception works very badly in air and very well in water, and species with the ability to zap their prey are also electroceptive and so the two tricks go hand in hand.

As for the usefulness of solar organisms: well, there might be various useful tricks, but they're unlikely to involve generating much energy or powering death rays. Humans, for example, have photolyase, a light-powered enzyme that repairs UV-induced damage, and synthesis of vitamin D in the skin from dehydrocholesterol on exposure to UV light. Possibly the solar-boosted hornets make use of similar nutrient-generating or repair processes driven by solar power. Maybe your dragons heal faster or generate fresh scales or feathers quicker in sunlight, for example. Maybe symbiotic photosynthetic bacteria in their skin cells provide fancy colouration as well as chemical benefits.

In any case, solar-powered death-rays seem dubious.

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  • $\begingroup$ Actually I was thinking more as using the electrical energy to regulate body temperature/generate heat to keep things warm. I don’t know why I said radiant heat, not quite what I meant. So they wouldn’t use it for killing, because as you said, shocking is much more efficient, I’ll clear that up with an edit, you made a good point about the storing of energy, I had that in mind already, but didn’t mention it for the sake of brevity. $\endgroup$ Apr 6, 2021 at 19:28
  • $\begingroup$ I like the idea of increased regeneration too. I should probably mention that the dragons do get all of their basic energy from food, so the energy they derive through other processes is purely for their additional abilities, not basic life function. $\endgroup$ Apr 6, 2021 at 19:46
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    $\begingroup$ I feel like "rum or vodka dragons" are or should be cocktails. And I would like the recipe. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Apr 7, 2021 at 0:08

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