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For my story I'm writing, I can't decide how I want my dragon to breathe, or, for lack of a better word, exude lightning. The dragon is rather large; I'd say Game of Thrones size when fully grown. The four main ideas I have for it are:

  • Electrolaser - A combination of gaseous chlorine, molecular iodine, and a liquid solution of bleach and lye, with help of a specialized organ similar to a stomach to store the combination, which would release the chemical into an eye-like organ with an internal reflective coating. This would emit a laser using iris and lens, which would be able to focus, with the help of some muscles similar to an electric eel, to generate shock to conduct to victims. (Preferably, the eye-like organ would be in the mouth, rather than having my dragon have laser-eyes.)
  • Electric eel - I could have it be like an electric eel, where, when it bites, it would release a shock using special muscles. It could store static electricity from the sky, as it lives in high altitudes and likes flying in stormy weather.
  • Conductive liquid - It sprays an acidic, conductive liquid similar to battery acid, and then releases a shock from electric-eel-like muscles (as mentioned in the second point) or stored up static electricity, to zap its victim.
  • Taser - Use electricity similar to Tasers to release a shock that knocks out its prey.

Which idea may be more believable to the audience? What might the rest of my world need for any of these to be more believable?

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    $\begingroup$ It seems like you're less looking for help solving a worldbuilding problem and more looking for reassurance that your audience will buy into your world. Any of those ideas will work as will not explaining at all. You need to trust that your audience will buy into the world you're building. We can't determine what the best idea for you is, just share our personal opinions. Such opinion based questions are not suitable for this site. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Feb 19 at 15:03
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    $\begingroup$ It is almost impossible to judge "best" or even "most logical" without knowing the criteria. You mention "victims" in one point and "prey" in another - is this a defensive weapon (defending against what?) or a hunting weapon (what is it hunting that won't succumb to it's teeth and claws)? What range is required? Did the dragons evolve naturally or is this genetically engineered? There are a mountain of problems with trying to have plausible huge flying dragons - see many previous questions here - so diving into how and why of electric breath is probably not worth the effort. $\endgroup$ Feb 19 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ Hello @ScoutPaige, welcome to Worldbuilding. We're delighted that you've asked your first question! Unfortunately, Stack Exchange's perspective on questions is a bit unique. (a) Per the tour, we're not a discussion forum, and this question would require some debate. (b) On other Stacks where objective science is the rule, determining what's "logical" or "best" is reasonably easy. Here, where we help people build imaginary worlds, it's not. If you can't explain how you'll judge a best answer, we can't answer the question. (c) Finally, (*Continued*) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Feb 19 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ ... it's important that you understand what you've asked us to do. By tagging your question science-based, you've asked us to provide a scientific answer to a fictional, imaginary, fantastic, and magical question. Dragons don't and can't exist. Dragons don't and can't breathe lightning. - We'd love to help! But it appears you have four possible answers, any of which would work fine for your dragons and none of which are any more "plausible" or scientific than the others. Pick one, and you're good to go. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Feb 19 at 15:58
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry about that, I'm new, and I had scrolled through the rules, but I misunderstood, and I apologize. I now understand what I did wrong, I was just looking for if any of the theories were not scientifically accurate or didn't work, sorry I worded it badly or wrong. To answer previous questions, it is used for hunting, or self-protection. Thanks for the assistance. $\endgroup$ Feb 19 at 16:06

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Have you considered magic?

TL;DR if you want lightning, handwave it. You have already handwaved biology, physics and chemistry away anyway just to have the dragon itself.


Hi, I am the dreaded Square-Cube Law. If you need your dragons to be both scientifically realistic AND as big as Westerian dragon, I am afraid that me and the other laws of physics are going to have to audit your work. You may be on the hook for a lot of nerding and mathing.

As depicted in the TV series, Drogon was about 150 feet long - about the length of a Boeing 747. Keep in mind that according to the lore of the books, they never stop growing as long as they live, and they can live for centuries.

For size comparison, an adult brachiosaurus would reach about 80 feet in length. This dinosaur also had many adaptations to support its weight that the dragon lacks. Realistically, with a dragon-shaped body, your creatures would not be able to walk and might need to spend at least their adulthood in water. If you want to keep them terrestrial, you might consider switching to a seismosaur-shaped dragon (which would be really funny, a lightning-breathing sauropod), but you would still need to add more and more adaptations for the absurd size.

Which brings us to the breath weapon. If you need this creature to generate lightning... According to Wikipedia, the weaker lightnings release about 200 megajoules in a flash.

I couldn't find much data on dinosaur metabolism estimates, but Randall Munroe quotes a T-Rex needing 40,000,000 science calories per day (I already converted from food calories). I am guestimating and rounding the body mass of your adult, sauropod-shaped dragon at 200 metric tons. Extrapolating from the T-rex (supposing an adult weight of 8 tons) we would have a caloric budget of 100,000,000 science calories per day (anoit a quarter of an adult cow, in american units). For comparison, that weak 200 megajoules lightning is like 47,801,000 calories.

That means shooting a lightning will consume half of its daily caloric intake in a flash. Affordable, maybe, but then you have to consider the absurd heating this will lead to, and require special heat dispersal evolutionary traits to keep the dragon from literally frying itself from the inside when attacking.

A more efficient and realistic approach is to vomit an electrically charged ball of stuff. It would work like this: the dragon has an anode and a cathode in its mouth. It is also able to secrete a large amount of curd from its salivary glands, and uses the anode and cathode to separate the curd into two distinct masses of ions.

The dragon then swallows either side of the electrically charged curd and spits the other side upon its victims. It probably has the advantage of height anyway. Upon impacting the head of a victim, should the poor bastard be conductive enough, an electric shock will ensue. Even if the target is insulated, they will still take the full kinectic load of the curd, making this even more efficient.

I am basing this mechanism off this image that I stole from Reddit. The image depicts a sauropod using vomit as a self-defense mechanism against a group of terrified theropods, and the actual source - a book called Dinosaurs Without Bones, by Tony Martin - is also credited there.

The description for this image is in the paragraph above.

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  • $\begingroup$ I should probably clarify too, they won't be as large as I mentioned, I was averaging a size for an example, but they would be the biggest of my dragon species, I'd wager around the same size as Hatzegopteryx thambema [link] (researchgate.net/figure/…) But a larger wingspan. But thanks for your input! $\endgroup$ Feb 19 at 19:14
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    $\begingroup$ @ScoutPaige even of they are T-Rex sized they are already handwaved creatures for a dragon shape. Making them smaller does not help with the lightning breath either. $\endgroup$ Feb 19 at 22:07
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    $\begingroup$ I don’t think this is as outlandish, calorie-wise, as you say. You use science calories to get big-looking numbers, but a single cow is on the order of 400,000 kcal (400,000,000 science calories). I can’t reconcile “eat a cow every 4 days” with “needs to spend its whole day eating without stop just to live” $\endgroup$ Feb 20 at 21:44
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    $\begingroup$ @fyrepenguin I sincerely had not thought of that. You are right, I will edit. $\endgroup$ Feb 20 at 22:14
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    $\begingroup$ »The dragon then swallows either side of the electrically charged curd and spits the other side upon its victims.« – just spit out both of them onto different nearby victims, or different ends of the same victim. Otherwise your dragon will build up charge and get shocked itself when contacting the ground. $\endgroup$ Feb 21 at 0:31
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Frame challenge: The electricity does not come from the head end of the dragon.

Premise 1: As mentioned in the original question, electric eels are one of the few known creatures to use electric attacks. However, this is only viable if there is a conductor (water) between the eel and prey.

Premise 2: There is a controversial urban legend that urinating on an electric fence can shock you. This was featured on two Mythbusters episodes, and there have been some news reports of this maybe having happened.

Premise 3: Some animals use sprayed liquid as weapons, most famously the skunk.

Conclusion: Your dragon has evolved organs similar to those of an electric eel around its urethra.

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  • $\begingroup$ This does beg the question: would the dragon electrocute his own balls and/or ovaries ever time it had to use a shock? $\endgroup$
    – Nzall
    Feb 21 at 21:53
  • $\begingroup$ Or, if you still want it to seem like "breath", its electric organs are around its saliva glands $\endgroup$ Feb 22 at 5:00
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There is laser-triggered switching, and it has ben used to direct lightning. The idea is to create an ionization path between the dragon and its target as Robert Rapplean said. However, lightning is an electric current, and not a laser, so it needs a closed circuit to flow. In the case of storm lightning, for instance, wind has friction with the ground. The wind and the ground are ionized in opposite charges. The end result is a build-up of charge. The charge reaches a certain level. The air is ionized and the current flows back as lightning. The wind and the ground depolarize and their net charge is back to zero.

In the case of the dragon, it cannot use friction to create a charge, and it cannot discharge in the same way an eel does because air does not conduct electricity when deionised. I cannot tell what the top hitting range is, but in theory the dragon can release two laser beams towards its target: It's akin to a positive and a negative wire, to create a closed circuit, with both laser beams hitting the target. The target closes the "circuit" and is hit by lightning.

The second method I can think of, is use the ground as the "negative" wire. However, that depends on the level of moisture in the ground, and how well is the dragon equipped to get the current back through its feet (or another specialised organ)

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    $\begingroup$ Lightning does not require a closed circuit. $\endgroup$
    – Jay McEh
    Feb 19 at 21:05
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    $\begingroup$ The other half of the circuit happens, as you mentioned, when the wind rubs against the ground. Nice description, by the way. This builds up extra electrons in the clouds that pile down all at once when positively charged waves of air reach upwards from the ground. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Van_de_Graaff_generator $\endgroup$ Feb 20 at 4:05
  • $\begingroup$ I wouldn't call a "collect charges for hours, then release them in a lightning" a "closed circuit". $\endgroup$ Feb 21 at 0:32
  • $\begingroup$ @PaŭloEbermann The generation of lightning by friction is actually moving the electrons from one medium to another. One medium becomes positively charged, the other negatively charged. The electrons (not necessarily the same ones) will eventually make the way back via lightning, and the two mediums will be neutral once again. The dragon's electric generation system, on the other hand, is like a battery which generates a spark. The battery needs a closed circuit which passes through the victim (to where electricity is targetd). $\endgroup$ Feb 22 at 18:21
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You have a tiny (huge) problem here: the return path.

Natural lightning is the result of the discharge of a natural capacitor. In order to fire lightning your dragon must somehow have a capacitor that holds an awful lot more charge than your dragon should be able to hold--your dragon is nowhere near the size of clouds. And the bolt will fire when the dragon gets too close to the ground.

The only remotely possible answer I see here is to head off to Medon (Lensman series) for their perfect insulator. And have some way of generating such voltages that I can't even imagine.

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Have you considered having the dragon spit something that is electrically conductive? Similar to the napalm breath in reign of fire.

It wouldn't need to be a constraint stream, just dense enough that the electricity flows to the next droplet. This would also give you a world-building reason for there to be a range to the attack.

Dragon could then squirt water towards an opponent that is then charged while the liquid is still flying. Characters could know the dragon is about to do this by smelling ozone as the nitrogen and oxygen molecules are ripped apart by the dragon ahead of the attack.

Maybe you could have dragons that are so enormous and powerful that the liquid could be ionized enough that it is sufficient to create lightning when connecting with a grounded target without needing a connection to the dragon, this way it becomes more of a spit than a stream/spray.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, this was one of my ideas, I'm leaning more to this one as it seems cool and simple to explain more than some of the other options, as some of the other options seem more maybe in comparison. $\endgroup$ Feb 20 at 15:06
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The laser thing would work.

Powerful lasers create ionization trails that will conduct electricity. There was conversation somewhere about using it to beam electricity to someone's garage.

The power levels to do this are incredibly wasteful and require expensive equipment, but if you have a dragon, sure, why not?

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  • $\begingroup$ I just don't know if I want my dragon to have laser eyes or not. I mean, a dragon with laser eyes is pretty cool, but if it's a dragon with laser eyes, that's kind of a lot. $\endgroup$ Feb 19 at 16:08
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    $\begingroup$ It's your story. I wouldn't put the laser in its eyes, though. That would burn out the eyes. Put it in the back of its throat. Remember, it's not the really damaging part, it's just a carrier wave. $\endgroup$ Feb 19 at 20:25
  • $\begingroup$ So, the dragon has a plasma cannon now. Then, why bother about electric capabilities at all? I mean: I wouldn't buy this! $\endgroup$
    – N1ngu
    Feb 22 at 6:42
  • $\begingroup$ Valid point. Especially since the laser will need to be 100-200 watts per foot of distance. Fortunately, the beam doesn't have to last more than an instant, so a chemically pumped pulse laser works. $\endgroup$ Feb 22 at 15:58
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I suggest go with an electric eel your shock, but to direct the discharge through the air have the dragon breathe out ionised air.

A lightning conductor works because it is a point that is close to charged clouds above. The concentration of ions causes ions to be released into the atmosphere while discharging other ions toward the ground.

The ionised air becomes more of a conductor than the unionised air and presents a riot for the lightning to discharge to the ground without hitting other random parts of the building.

Now the body is quite capable of producing localised ions. Those proton pump inhibitors that are used to stop the production of stomach acid, stop the action of proton pumps in the body that create a concentration of acid in the stomach. If you could have some special tiny internal hairs, horns or scales inside the nostrils that charge the air with ions as it leaves the nostrils then perhaps you could discharge the shock through a directed breath of air that precedes three actual shock instead of through water as an eel.

It's a bit like a taser provide conduction through the ions and then release the main shock.

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    $\begingroup$ No means of projecting a gas, ionized or otherwise, will keep it linear for more than a handful of feet. It will very quickly become a big diffuse cloud that moves according to wafting breezes rather than the initial direction of dragon-breath, and within that cloud the lightning will still follow the path of least resistance. That path is unlikely to include the intended target unless that target is already essentially inside the dragon's mouth. $\endgroup$
    – Jay McEh
    Feb 21 at 16:26
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If you look into either modern warfare or actual real animals you will find shooting lightning streams is not a viable weapon. This is because a lightning is a chaotic phenomenon that will flow towards the least-resistance path, just like a fracture does in a fragile material.

Trying to direct lighting should involve some kind of extremity that ends in a spike to favor dielectric rupture and some kind of insulating parabola that prevents the lighting hitting back the source. As a reference, see the tentacles from Barinade, the Bio-electric Anemone final boss from the third dungeon in Zelda: Ocarina of Time videogame. Also, look at the triple-parabola device that holds high-tension cables to ground turrets. This could be your dragon's tail?

As for the voltage generation, just go ahead for any bio-chemical reaction. The actual issue would be tying to explain how the dragon electrically neutralizes itself after a discharge with respect to the environment.

IMHO accumulating electric energy from cloud-generated lightnings would not look very viable. Efficiently holding electric power is very hard, or at least something humanity hasn't figured out yet.

Thinking about taser guns, you could go for some kind of whip-like extremity (again, dragon tail?) that can shock in-touch targets. No-brainer.

As for shock-featured bites... if you are inside a dragon's fauces being torn apart by giant fangs... How is electricity relevant? That feels like dumb bio-engineering.

So, no matter what you go for, electricity should be a close-range weapon. Except maybe for air-to-ground discharges to clear targets like plated-armored knights at hundreds of meters.

As for the conductive fluid ideas: having a stable fluid stream that can conduct electricity is very unstable. Liquid tension and air unstabilities would make that nonviable as a middle-range weapon. And laser powerful enough to ionize air would already burn targets alone, while the conductive plasma stream would only be stable in a fluorescent tube (again: no wind, no middle-range). I'd drop this ideas if you pretend your dragon to use this weapon on air and open fields.

But the dragon could be able to poke a conductive fluid to soak targets so they were more vulnerable to the electric extremity attack.

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Please forgive my original answer here. I am proud of the mathing there, but I was ultimately being an ass. I love sci-fi and fantasy and I am not picky like that when I'm resding stuff I like. So let's use suspension of disbelief correctly this time, and assume that only the lightning weapon needs to be scientifically plausible.

Electroplaques

As David says, go eel. But I add "and turn the dial to eleven".

Electric eels have electric organs which are made of stacked electrocytes - current generating cells. These cells are modified muscle cells and each cell alone is capable of providing 0.15V. See more on Wikipedia.

Two things to consider now:

  1. These eels grow to be 2m long (between six and seven feet). The electric cell arrangement is all linear. Your dragons are surely much bigger, and you are free to write them in such a way that the electric organ coils around them for even greater length and therefore voltage. If you make voltage proportional to mass rather than length (because the added mass implies greater volume to fit a coiling electric organ), a one ton dragon could generate... rule of three, these eels usually weight 20kg... a 1 ton dragon could generate well over 40,000 volts. For reference, low end Tesla coils have voltages around 50,000 volts.

  2. Fish discharge to the water. Even river water, which does not conductas well as seawster, is more conductive than air. Your dragon discharges to the air.

Air is generally a poor conductor. Living things in general conduct much better, which is why when lightning strikes in the open, someone or something gets the electric shaft.

A T-Rex sized, T-Rex heavy dragon shooting lightning like this would have a relatively short range for the lightning - most likely it would only be able to directly hit something a few meters away from it. But it would not need to aim. When the beast attacks, all the charge in it desperately needs to reach the ground, and anything fleshy nearby will be seen as a shortcut.

But here are some good news for you - direct hits are not required. If the lightning hits a more conductive object rather than the proper target, the victim is still in for a jolt:

When lightning strikes the ground or an object on the ground, the discharge occurs in and along the ground surface (not deep into the ground). This creates a dangerous and potentially deadly ground current near the lightning strike.

Ground current is responsible for killing many farm animals on a yearly basis. The threat of a fatal incident is affected by the distance between contact points with the ground and also the orientation of those contact points with respect to the lightning strike and discharge path. Farm animals have a long span between their front and back legs making them more vulnerable to ground current from a nearby lightning strike.

In humans, the risk of a lightning death or injury increases for a person lying on the ground because the greatest distance between contact points (usually between the head and feet) is greater than the distance of the contact points (2 feet) if the person was standing up.

There are videos online of people being jolted by ground currents from nearby lightning. In one case, lightning hit a soccer field during a game and seven players close to the strike collapsed. Others did not fall but felt intense pain..

So the dragon may hunt by simply getting close to where prey is and letting it go. If it hits, then the prey is cooked from inside. Even if it survives, it will be stunned by the shock, the bright flash and the loud clap. If the lightning missed, and the victim is touching the ground, they still get a jolt and may even die from it.

Finally, to make it a proper lightning: when discharging, it would be ideal to have the charge come out from a pointy end. A single horn could do it, but for a proper breath effect the dragon needs a long, pointy tongue which is also connected to the electric organ(s). To lightning-breath, the dragon opens irs mouth, points with the tongue and then contracts every electrocyte in its organ.

If you wish to make the dragon even more menacing, conscious control of the electrocytes and pointy scales would allow it to make impromptu Jacob's ladder style spark gaps on its body. In plain English: you know that visual effect that the MCU's Thor has when he is building up power, with electricity crawling all over his body? Your dragon would be able to do that at will. Might use it for dominance and mating displays, to terrorize victims, or as a warning before attacking.

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