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Most (quadruped) dragons are depicted as having two wings sprouting from their back, consisting of a limb structure draped with a leathery membrane as the way to create lift and fly, somewhat resembling bat wings.
I'm looking for a material to replace the membrane with, with some better qualities than a thin, fragile piece of skin. I'm excluding feathers and somewhat stiffer wings like pterosaurs seem to have had (according to this question: Bats With Pterosaur Wings).
The properties I'm looking for:

  • Tough/hard, tear-resistant material
  • Capable of creating and sustaining lift
  • (Largely) chemically inert

To be clear, they fly by flapping the wings / soaring on currents, as birds do.The dragons in this case are small (somewhat bigger than a big dog / size of a medium-sized pony). They do not weigh much to be able to fly (how much is still open for debate).

Does such a material exist? Would it be plausible to appear naturally in a creature? What speed would a dragon as depicted be able to achieve with wings consisting of this material?

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  • $\begingroup$ Some type of naturally occurring carbon-fiber could probably work. $\endgroup$ – rclev Oct 30 '17 at 17:38
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Keratin

Fingernails, hair, horn and feathers are all made of keratin. Keratin is a versatile protein which serves in many different vertebrate appendages.

A model I think would be cool for your dragon wings is baleen.

baleen closeup from http://www.naturespic.com/NewZealand/image.asp?id=4805

Imagine fingernail stuff but as long rigid strips arranged to form a slightly flexible and hairy plate. This would be a fine wing. Like a fingernail there is not a blood supply. The tips of the wings would get worn, frayed and weatherbeaten. They would be continuously regenerated from the base (like a fingernail, and I think like baleen).

Baleen plates can be big!
right whale with huge baleen plates http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-skeleton-of-right-whale-showing-massive-head-and-baleen-french-national-104156574.html

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    $\begingroup$ Baleen is very heavy, though. A six foot strip weighs two or three pounds. It is flexible, but may not be flexible enough to make a good wing. Perhaps if it's much thinner... Kind of a nifty idea, though, keratinous wing plates! $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Oct 30 '17 at 1:35
  • $\begingroup$ Is it possible to make it thin enough so it does not weigh too much? And is it colourable or will it always be white? $\endgroup$ – Century Oct 30 '17 at 20:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Century - consider feathers and fur. They are all sorts of colors and they are made of keratin. I picked this baleen because it is weird and sort of wing looking but a wing would be much thinner. Imagine a wing the thickness and flexibility of your thumbnail. It would be good too because it could not bleed or get infected and it would be constantly (re)growing. Bats must run into all kinds of trouble on those fronts with their membranous wings. $\endgroup$ – Willk Oct 31 '17 at 12:10
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How about Kevlar? This is an organic compound and could conceivably be produced in an animal equipped with the right biochemistry. Another component that might be used instead of, or as well as Kevlar, is spider silk or a material similar to it.

Spider silk is elastic and very strong although normally encountered in very fine filaments that are easily broken; it can be spun and made into much larger and more resilient objects. For instance this very rare rug made entirely out of Madagascan golden orb spider silk:

spider rug

https://www.wired.com/2009/09/spider-silk/

Update it would seem that some spider silk is even stronger than kevlar https://www.wired.com/2010/09/super-strong-spider-silk/

The size of some of the webs has to be seen to be believed. Made me feel rather quesy walking under one of the webs at dusk even though it was high up between trees.

Golden orb spider

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    $\begingroup$ Spider silk is flexible and strong, so this seems like an awesome solution. Dragon grooming would involve extruding the liquid silk from their palms or claw tips and "combing" it onto a light, rigid frame (like keratin, as suggested by Will). theconversation.com/… $\endgroup$ – Rissiepit Oct 30 '17 at 11:01
  • $\begingroup$ What kind of biochemistry would be needed to naturally produce Kevlar? And that rug must be expensive :o $\endgroup$ – Century Oct 30 '17 at 20:53
  • $\begingroup$ Kevlar is synthetic, you should remove that. But spider silk is the answer (and a much better answer than keratin, there's a reason birds dont use it despite having keratin in their body). If you have a very thin layer of skin that kind of "pulls" the spidersilk threads across it to lend it it's strength, flexibility and elasticity. Some of these spidersilks can be multitudes stronger than Kevlar as well. $\endgroup$ – Demigan yesterday
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    $\begingroup$ The fact that Kevlar is made syntheticly does not prevent the possibility that it might be made by natural means. In fact by natures standards the structure of Kevlar is very simple and given the right selection pressures I see no reason why it should not have evolved. $\endgroup$ – Slarty 3 hours ago
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Spider web silk. Per pound stronger than steel. Don't know how it compares to kevlar, but the idea of a dragons being artificial creatures with genes from spiders has a certain appeal...

Even better idea would be graphene. Would be super light weight, almost invisible.

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  • $\begingroup$ Darwin's bark spider is about 10x stronger than Kevlar and is one of the strongest biological materials ever studied (it says strongest but that depends on what feature of the material you look at. "Stronger than steel" often does not mean that a bar made of the material would be stiffer and harder than steel). en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darwin%27s_bark_spider $\endgroup$ – Demigan yesterday
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Cartilage.

It is a tough and elastic material. If you wish for a stronger structure it can be arranged in scales or in semi-fixed folds, held together by or glued to thin t-section bones.

You will need to wrap it under a membrane and a lubricating layer to prevent unnecessary wear and friction. For faster repairs, you could let the chondrocytes move semi-freely in the lubricating layer. They will cluster around wounds and help rebuild the damaged areas. Also, no blood vessels are needed for maintenance, unless, as mentioned above, you wish for a quicker healing.

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