Spoiler alert: This article refers to events up to Season 4 Episode 2 of Game of Thrones. Please do not continue reading unless you have watched up to this point! Please do not include book spoilers in the comments section.
After taking time to pick my jaw up off the floor in the wake of GOT’s Purple Wedding, this week I’ve decided to indulge my inner geek and take a look at some of the amazing real-world science which courses through the fictional land of Westeros. So sit back, relax and wonder at resurrecting reptiles, ancient beasts, amazing brain imaging and the real-world poisons that finally wiped the smirk of King Joffrey’s face.
Dragons in stasis:
Who can forget the iconic moment when Daenerys (Dany) Targaryen (mother of dragons) emerged from the flames, unscathed and cradling a small brood of adorable baby dragons. Although I can’t vouch for the scientific realism behind Dany’s apparently flame retardant skin; it seems that George R. R. Martin may have borrowed the idea of embryonic resurrection from real-life reptiles.
A number of reptiles, including turtles and chameleons, show an adaptation known as arrested embryonic development. This adaptation means that developing reptiles can remain arrested (paused) at an early stage of development, safely locked away inside their protective egg shell until environmental conditions are favourable for them to break free and explore the world. Apparently, in the case of dragons, this tends to be during periods of prolonged and intense heat. Interestingly, this form of arrested development is more common in species that lay thicker-shelled more rigid eggs – like dragons perhaps?
However, this theory falls short if you consider the apparent age of Dany’s dragon eggs – these being around 150 years old. Real life reptile eggs expressing arrested development, also known as diapause, tend to only remain dormant for a maximum period of a year – any longer and the embryo is likely to die. This is a fair way off the 150 year mark, however, if we throw invertebrates into the mix, we find reports of life emerging from eggs which have laid dormant on a museum shelf for over 120 years (specifically Tardigrade or waterbear eggs)! So, scientifically speaking, it seems Dany’s dragons are a hybrid between modern day reptiles and invertebrates with the ability to remain dormant for many years; a terrifying mesh of science fiction and science fact which will hopefully soon burn a path directly to the Iron Throne for our bad-ass dragon queen!
With wild burning eyes and powerful bone-breaking jaws the dire wolf, sigil of the ill-fated house Stark, is not only a formidable creature, but also one which does not stem purely from science-fiction. Indeed, dire wolves, also known as Canis dirus (meaning fearsome dog) are known to have roamed the Earth along with other megafauna such as giant sloths, woolly mammoths and giant beavers over 10,000 years ago.
The average dire wolf would have been roughly the same size as a grey wolf; averaging about 1.5m (4.9ft) in length, but with a significantly heavier build, weighing between 50kg (110lb) and 79kg (174lb) – making them the largest species in the genus Canis. Their teeth were also relatively large leading palaeontologists to suggest that these were used to crush bone. The animals were once common throughout North and South America; indeed, dozens of dire wolf fossils have been recovered from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.
Was Khal Drogo really brain dead?:
Whether Dany’s feelings for Khal Drogo stemmed from true love or Stockholm syndrome, I couldn’t help but feel sad when this unexpected love story drew to an abrupt and tragic end. The enigmatic powers of blood magic appeared to leave poor Drogo in a vegetative state, but what was really going on behind his inscrutable gaze?
Modern imaging science is now revolutionising our understanding of vegetative states and is providing a window into the minds of otherwise unresponsive patients. A vegetative state is defined as when a patient is awake, but shows no signs of conscious awareness. Due to the unresponsive nature of most vegetative patients, you may be forgiven in assuming that they are actually brain dead and incapable of responding. However, recent ground-breaking work using fMRI has revealed that, in some cases, vegetative patents have an intact conscious mind and, by controlling their brain activity, can clearly provide yes or no answers to simple questions. This can be seen in the astounding video footage below where a Canadian man (Scott Routley) who, for over a decade, was believed to be in an unresponsive ‘vegetative’ state is able to ‘talk’ to scientists through an fMRI and to indicate that he is not in any pain.
Perhaps if Vaes Dothrak had state of the art fMRI equipment this little love story may have had a happier ending?
What killed Joffrey?:
OK, so I think we can all agree that no one was particularly upset by the death of this smug teenage tyrant with more power than sense. But, following the particularly graphic and gruesome portrayal of Joff’s final moments, I question; was this death purely a work of fiction or is such an end possible with the use of real-world poisons?
To answer this question we must first consider Joff’s dying minutes:
Joff’s final moments followed from a sip of wine and a bite of pie; either of which could have been the vessel for this deadly dram. The first observable symptoms of this poisoning, manifest as a dryness in his mouth, followed by an intense coughing fit.
Gasping for breath he soon falls to the floor and vomits. Unable to stand, he lays fighting for breath and convulsing. Cersei rushes to help her son, turning him over and, in the process, revealing a grey/blue pallor to his face and lines of fresh blood coursing from his nostrils. After a final plaintive glance towards his mother (which almost convinces us he may actually be human), he rapidly dies in her arms.
From these symptoms we could conclude that whatever poison was used must have the following properties:
1) It must be fast acting.
2) It must cause respiratory distress, perhaps through pulmonary oedema (a build-up of fluid in the lungs).
3) It must cause haemorrhage, perhaps by thinning the blood, or preventing clotting.
Although there are no real-world poisons which can create this exact collection of symptoms alone, a number may induce similar effects and, in combination, may replicate George R. R. Martin’s fictional strangler.
One substance which fulfils both criteria 1 and 2 is cyanide. It only takes a small amount of cyanide to produce a toxic effect and the poison is quickly adsorbed into the body through the gut. This poison causes a burning sensation in the throat and also leads to pulmonary oedema which, more often than not, can trigger violent coughing fits. Cyanide poisoning also fits well with the observation of vomiting and a bluing of the skin. Since cyanide interferes with the body’s ability to generate energy in its cells, these cells begin to die and, as death nears, the affected person’s skin can turn blue – a clinical effect called cyanosis.
Another possible candidate toxin is Deadly nightshade. This potent poison disrupts nerve cell communication, causing convulsions, dry mouth, a sense of choking and dilation of blood vessels – turning the victims face red. However, neither cyanide or Deadly nightshade commonly lead to haemorrhaging.
Haemorrhaging may be caused by agents which prevent clotting and thin the blood, a well known example being warfarin, found in pesticides. However, the effects of warfarin are commonly not seen until several days after ingestion, meaning that this poison is too slow to be our candidate. A number of snake venoms also thin the blood, meaning that perhaps the poison used to kill Joffrey was a mixture of more than one toxin.
It is, however, also possible that the haemorrhaging seen at the purple wedding was simply caused by the violent coughing fit Joff experienced before his death.
So, the most likely candidate poison seems to be cyanide, perhaps mixed with a blood thinning venom. But, whatever the cause of death, the biggest question still remains…who put it there? With such a renowned and despised groom, anyone could be a suspect; sadly though, this is one question science can’t answer…I guess we’ll just have to wait and see!
Note: for a more in-depth discussion of Joff’s poisoning see this great article by Rachel Nuwer.
So there we have it. The fictional world of Westeros is actually awash with scientific fact. Be it ancient wolves or reptilian resurrection, science can give us valuable insights into the dramatic events of Game of Thrones. It probably cannot explain why someone might kill a whole family at a wedding though…
Post by: Sarah Fox