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Fantastical Biology – Part Five: Fantasy Creatures in Flight

Air Colossus by sandaraA dragon soars through the clouds; a fairy flutters through the woods; a gargoyle flexes its stone wings—flying creatures are a staple of fantasy literature. There are the traditional ones above, or whatever creature the author wants to slap a pair of wings onto. With fantasy’s focus on wonder and magic, it’s not strange that there would be so many creatures with wings in the genre. Winged animals can simultaneously work for the plot and invoke the fantastical setting at the same time. But is there anything to gain from taking a closer look at how wings and flight work in the real world? This won’t be a boring physics lecture about drag and lift, but will touch on some of the ways real animals achieve flight and how that can be incorporated into fantasy.

The Physics of a Flyer

Toothless Flying by twisted-fairytalesMost of the well-known flying fantasy creatures are very large, whereas in the real world most flying animals are not. One of the arguments against the realism of these fantasy fliers is that they’re too big to be able to get off the ground. But just because today’s birds and bugs aren’t big doesn’t mean they weren’t in the past. The ancient pterosaurs—flying lizards that lived at the same time as dinosaurs—are the largest flying animals on record, with the biggest discovered so far having a possible wingspan of 12 meters (39 ft.) and weighing between 200-250 kg (440-550 lbs.). In fact, some scientists think that a wingspan of up to 18 meters (60 ft.) is biologically possible. The real problem isn’t the size, but the weight. It’s why birds have beaks instead of teeth, and hollow bones. Their aerodynamic shapes are important to successful flight as well. Toothless, from How to Train Your Dragon, is about the right size and shape to realistically fly.

Giant Flyers

Quetzalcoatl 2.0 by el-grimlockBut what if you did want something huge? Some things to take into consideration would be flying ability, style, and take-offs. While small birds can take off from the ground without a run-up, larger birds need either a running start or a high take-off point, like the side of a cliff. Large birds spend most of their time in the sky soaring, using currents of air to keep their heavier bodies up, rather than flapping vigorously like a hummingbird might. This allows them to waste less energy while traveling great distances. The difference between a dragon and something much smaller, like a harpy, would be similar to long-distance runners and sprinters. The harpy could probably chase someone through the woods or dark city streets, but the dragon could soar from one kingdom to the next without needing to rest.

Insect Flyers

Dragonfly by thegryphWhat about fantasy creatures modeled after insects instead of birds? Insects were the first creatures to evolve flight, and they differ from birds in quite a few ways. Obviously bird wings are made from skin, feathers and bone, but an insect’s wings are actually specially adapted parts of their outer shells. Some aren’t born with wings, but like a butterfly, grow them at a later point. Also unlike birds, most insects can hover. Sometimes only the male or female of the species will have wings. And in the insect world, many of the best fliers are also predators that hunt other flying insects. These traits can be applied to an original creation or familiar fantasy creatures. Imagine a race of elves where only one sex can fly, or perhaps the children have wings to escape dangerous fantasy predators, but lose them in adulthood.

Flying Without Wings

Flying Snake by Nord-SolPlenty of animals fly without wings, too. Most gliders have flaps of skin that they can stretch out, allowing them short flights. This style of flying requires a high starting point, so many of these animals live in forests, and glide from tree to tree. Most people are familiar with flying mammals like squirrels and sugar gliders, but some frogs, lizards, and even snakes can glide. As if flying snakes aren’t disturbing enough, turns out some spiders are also airborne, creating parachutes out of their webbing. They ride the air currents and sometimes travel for miles before setting back down to the ground. Not all flyers dwell on land, either. Fins are actually very similar to wings, allowing some fish to “fly” through the water and into the air. Time for a few sea-dragons in our fantasy literature. When it comes to fantasy and flight, the sky is…well, you know the rest.

Title image by Fleurdelyse.



  1. […] Check out my article on Fantasy Faction about combining real world biology with fantasy. This one focuses on flying fantasy creatures. And don’t forget to check out the other great articles on that site as well! […]

  2. […] remote areas, or do they, like so many real animals, adapt to the cities? If your fantasy creature has wings or the ability to fly, fitting them into an urban environment shouldn’t be too […]

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