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© 2019 by Savannah J. Goins all rights reserved 

Leviathan: The Original Fire Breather?

January 16, 2018

When I relaunched the blog as The Fantasy Scribe, my plan was to focus on mythical creatures. As in made-up, don’t-really-exist, creatures. But to my surprise—and childish delight—there is evidence that the creatures I've researched so far may have been real. Which is so awesome!

 

So today we’re going to look at the Leviathan. The great sea monster described in the Bible. There are many speculations about what the author of Job (a section of the Bible pronounced "jobe") was referring to when he described Leviathan, and we're going to look at four of them today. But first, an excerpt and my favorite part of the passage:

 

Job 41:15-29 “His rows of scales are his pride, shut up tightly as with a seal; one is so near another that no air can come between them; they are joined one to another, they stick together and cannot be parted. His sneezings flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. Out of his mouth go burning lights; sparks of fire shoot out. Smoke goes out of his nostrils, as from a boiling pot and burning rushes. His breath kindles coals, and a flame goes out of his mouth.”

 

This passage is so intriguing that it's hard to only share a piece of it. But there are many other exciting facts we'll examine from other parts of the text momentarily. For now just take a look at that bit! This creature spit flame out of his mouth. Which is incredibly cool! (At least, for us humans of today who don't have to encounter such a terrifying thing)

 

Some people have guessed in the past that the Leviathan was a large, prehistoric crocodilian such as Sarcosuchus. Other dinosaur species, including Kronosaurus, Parasaurolophus and Liopleurodon, are considered possibilities. We’ll take a look at the existing fossil evidence of each of these prehistoric beasts and compare that against the descriptions of Leviathan.

 

Sarcosuchus, commonly referred to as the Super Croc, was a monstrous crocodilian whose Latin name means “crocodile skin.” The largest skeleton found yet measures 39.4 ft (12 meters) in length. Judging from the growth plates in many of the bones found, scientists believe that their bodies may have continued to grow indefinitely.

 

A Sarcosuchus skull has an unusual hollow place in the front toward the nose. It is believed that the Sarcosuchus was primarily aquatic (dwelling in water) but could leave the water and move around well on land, like the crocodiles of today.

The first part of a Kronosaurus skeleton ever found was a skull, which was nearly eight feet (2.5 meters) long by itself. As a result, scientists originally guessed the Kronosaurus to be much larger than it actually was. With the discovery of many more skeletons, we now know that it had a disproportionately large head for its body size. It reached a full length including the skull of 33 feet (10 meters).

 

It was named for the leader of the titans, Cronus, and had very large teeth. Evidence suggests that this animal lived deep in the sea and was unlikely to ever willingly leave the water.

The Parasaurolophus reached lengths of about 31 ft (9.5 meters) and stood about 16 feet high. Like the Sarcosuchus, it has extra hollow places in its skull. Unusual nasal passages connect to the hollow place inside the crest. There are many theories on what these were for, including storage of air during time spent under water, use as a snorkeling device for the same circumstances, and vocalization. But what if it was for something a little more interesting? Like, say, breathing fire?

 

The Parasaurolophus is our only candidate whose skeleton indicates it was able to stand on two legs as well as all four. Scientists are unsure whether it was primarily terrestrial (dwelling on land) or aquatic. Its skeleton suggests that it was likely terrestrial, but along with the theories for the purpose of its hollow crest, there is the possibility that it was somewhat aquatic as well.

Liopleurodon's length is reported quite differently among different sources. One source says they reached lengths of up to 65 feet (20 meters) while others, such as the one this picture came from, suggest that they are only known to have reached around 23 feet (7 meters). Evidence shows that this creature was most likely exclusively aquatic and seems to have preferred deep parts of the ocean.

So lets see how each of these four prehistoric species holds up under the specifications of the Biblical description of Leviathan.

 

1. Size and Ferocity

 

First, we're told several times throughout the passage that Leviathan cannot be captured. He cannot be kept as a pet or killed to be eaten. The passage in Job says, “Indeed, any hope of overcoming him is false…. No one is so fierce that he would dare stir him up…. When he raises himself up, the mighty are afraid; because of his crashings they are beside themselves.”

 

This passage also says that if anyone tries to catch him, they will never try again. 

 

From these descriptions, we know that Leviathan was quite fierce, and probably very large. That could apply to each of the dinosaur possibilities. The best candidate for “rising up” would be the Parasaurolophus. Its skeleton indicates that it was likely able to stand up and walk on its back legs just as well as on all fours.

 

Our Kronosaurus and Liopleurodon were very large and had epic teeth, but if “rise up” means “get taller and stare people down,” well, it is highly unlikely that their skeletons would allow for that. And both of these guys were pliosaurs with very short necks, not plesiosaurs with the Loch Ness Monster look.

 

As for Sarcosuchus, he was shaped quite similarly to the crocodile of today and was unlikely to be able to rise up to just his back legs alone. But he could probably have pushed himself up a little higher by extending his legs all the way from the usual bent resting position pictured above that we see frequently in crocodiles.  

 

Parasaurolophus: one, everybody else: zero.

 

2. Impenetrable skin

 

Secondly, Leviathan had crazy strong skin. "His rows of scales are his pride, shut up tightly as with a seal; one is so near another that no air can come between them; they are joined one to another, they stick together and cannot be parted…. Though the sword reaches him, it cannot avail, nor does spear, dart, or javelin. He regards iron as straw, and bronze as rotten wood. The arrow cannot make him flee, sling stones become like stubble to him. Darts are regarded as straw, he laughs at the threat of javelins.”

 

The skin or scales described here are presumed to be osteoderms, which are bony plates within the skin. Modern day crocodiles, and some other reptile species, have these osteoderms in their skin. Can you see how having a coat of bone could make the threat of javelins less than concerning to our dragon friend?

Parasaurolophus, however, apparently did not have this skin feature. According to the Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, “Among dinosaurs, skin impressions are commonly associated with partial and complete hadrosaurid skeletons, and consist of non-imbricating tubercles or scales.”

 

Non-imbricating means not overlapping. While the passage doesn’t necessarily say that Leviathan’s scales overlapped, it does say that they were so strongly bound together that air could not pass between them. Based on that phrase, it seems likely that they could have overlapped, or at least been bound so closely together that they could not get any closer.

 

From these skin impressions, we can see that Parasaurolophus had textured skin, but nothing as strong as osteoderms. If osteoderms would have been present, they would be even more well-preserved than the skin impressions.

 

One strike against Parasaurolophus.

We don’t have sufficient evidence to make a guess at the type of skin that Kronosaurus and Liopleurodon had. But it seems likely that if they had osteoderms, we would have found them with at least some of their skeletons by now.

 

If their skeletal bones survived, and the osteoderms of other species survived, why wouldn’t the osteoderms of these individuals still be around as well, if they'd been present to begin with?

 

As for Sarcosuchus, osteoderms have been found with its skeletons. The very first pieces of a Sarcosuchus skeleton ever found were a skull and osteoderms.

 

According to Dr. Paul Sereno, Paleontologist and discoverer of the most complete Sarcosuchus skeleton found to date, “The osteoderms formed a continuous surface from the anterior cervical vertebrae to the middle of the tail.”

So Sarcosuchus is the winner the the most impenetrable skin award. With these osteoderms, he was likely the most difficult to get a weapon through. Plus, there is one verse in Job that says “His undersides are like sharp potsherds, he spreads pointed marks in the mire,” which indicates that he had some kind of protruding scales on his undersides. And he must have been anatomically able to drag his belly through the mud, possibly because he had short, squat legs like a crocodilian.

 

Remember our present-day crocodilian osteoderms from above? Here is a fossilized Sarcosuchus osteoderm. Look at the size of that! I doubt even Duane Johnson could throw a javelin through skin made of those things. What do you think?

 

3. Strength and Teeth

 

Thirdly, his strength was revered, and he had fearsome teeth. “Who can open the doors of his face, with his terrible teeth all around?....Strength dwells in his neck, and sorrow dances before him. The folds of his flesh are joined together, they are firm on him and cannot be moved. His heart is as hard as stone, even as hard as the lower millstone.”

 

Each of our contestants has a fairly short neck that was likely quite muscular. So lets focus on teeth here. Kronosaurus, Sarcosuchus, and Liopleurodon each have obviously carnivorous teeth.

 

As for Parasaurolophus, take a look at this skull. Tiny mouth. No scary teeth. This guy was a vegetarian. I’m afraid this fact disqualifies Parasaurolophus from Leviathan candidacy. No terrible teeth, no Leviathan.

Something interesting to note about modern day crocodilians is that while they have incredible bite force, they aren’t so great at opening their mouths. In fact, while a large enough specimen could bite a human in half, the same individual’s jaws can be safely shut with a rubber band or duct tape. And people are advised not to bother trying to get the mouth open if ever attacked by one of these, but to go for the eyes or nose because of how impossible it is to pull the jaws apart.

 

We don’t know if the same may have been true for Kronosaurus and Liopleurodon, and while it is possible, considering the significant similarities between Sarcosuchus and today’s crocodile, this is probably another point for our Super Croc. "Opening the doors of his face" would be quite a challenge.

 

4. Fiery Breath

 

Here’s the best part for us fantasy animal lovers. This dragon breathed fire! Yes! 

 

“His sneezings flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. Out of his mouth go burning lights, sparks of fire shoot out. Smoke goes out of his nostrils, as from a boiling pot and burning rushes. His breath kindles coals, and a flame goes out of his mouth.”

 

So here is where Sarcosuchus really outshines everybody else, at least in theory. He has a giant hollow place in his nose. A place where chemicals could have been stored or mixed to produce flame when forced out. Woot!

Parasaurolophus has an unexplained hollow place in his skull as well, coordinating with his hollow crest. It is an interesting idea that this feature could have been used for the same purpose. While Parasaurolophus falls short of being our Leviathan, he may still have been a fire-breathing vegetarian. 

So what if Sarcosuchus did have the ability to do some kind of fire-breathing thing with this specialized anatomy? How might he have done it?

Unfortunately, I’ve struggled to find anything remotely like this in any currently living species. Let’s look at what I was able to scrape up:

 

Venomous snakes keep their venom in a specialized gland behind each eye. On each side, the gland is connected by a duct to the fang, and there is a sizable muscle behind the gland that pushes the venom out of the gland, through the duct, through the vein and into a prey item’s body. This venom obviously does not explode out in flame, but the venom of most species is extremely painful and can feel like burning.

 

However, due to his extreme size, it isn't likely Sarcosuchus needed venom to help subdue his prey.

 

Perhaps slightly more applicable is the Bombardier beetle’s defense mechanism. According to the Smithsonian, “The beetles have a special chamber in their abdomens where they