The Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), also known as the Komodo monitor, is a large species of lizard found in the Indonesian islands ofKomodo, Rinca, Flores, Gili Motang, and Padar. A member of the monitor lizard family (Varanidae), it is the largest living species of lizard, growing to a maximum length of 3 metres (10 ft) in rare cases and weighing up to approximately 70 kilograms (150 lb).
- Type: Reptile
- Diet: Carnivore
- Average life span in the wild: 30 years+
- Size: 10 ft (3 m)
- Weight: 330 lbs (150 kg)
- Protection status: Endangered
- Did you know? Komodo dragons can run up to 11 mph (18 kph) in short bursts.
- Size relative to a 6-ft (2-m) man
Their unusually large size has been attributed to island gigantism, since no other carnivorous animals fill the niche on the islands where they live. However, recent research suggests the large size of Komodo dragons may be better understood as representative of a relict population of very largevaranid lizards that once lived across Indonesia and Australia, most of which, along with other megafauna, died out after the Pleistocene. Fossils very similar to V. komodoensis have been found in Australia dating to greater than 3.8 million years ago, and its body size remained stable on Flores, one of the handful of Indonesian islands where it is currently found, over the last 900,000 years, “a time marked by major faunal turnovers, extinction of the island’s megafauna, and the arrival of early hominids by 880 ka.”
As a result of their size, these lizards dominate the ecosystems in which they live. Komodo dragons hunt and ambush prey including invertebrates,birds, and mammals. It has been claimed that they have a venomous bite; there are two glands in the lower jaw which secrete several different toxic proteins, however, the biological significance of these is disputed. Their group behaviour in hunting is exceptional in the reptile world. The diet of big Komodo dragons mainly consists of deer, though they also eat considerable amounts of carrion. Komodo dragons also occasionally attack humans in the area of West Manggarai Regency where they live in Indonesia.
Mating begins between May and August, and the eggs are laid in September. About 20 eggs are deposited in abandoned megapode nests or in a self-dug nesting hole. The eggs are incubated for seven to eight months, hatching in April, when insects are most plentiful. Young Komodo dragons are vulnerable and therefore dwell in trees, safe from predators and cannibalistic adults. They take about eight to 9 years to mature, and are estimated to live up to 30 years.
Komodo dragons were first recorded by Western scientists in 1910. Their large size and fearsome reputation make them popular zoo exhibits. In the wild, their range has contracted due to human activities, and they are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN. They are protected under Indonesian law, and anational park, Komodo National Park, was founded to aid protection efforts.
In the wild, an adult Komodo dragon usually weighs around 70 kg (150 lb), although captive specimens often weigh more. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, an average adult male will weigh 79 to 91 kg (170 to 200 lb) and measure 2.59 m (8.5 ft), while an average female will weigh 68 to 73 kg (150 to 160 lb) and measure 2.29 m (7.5 ft). The largest verified wild specimen was 3.13 m (10.3 ft) long and weighed 166 kg (370 lb), including undigested food. The Komodo dragon has a tail as long as its body, as well as about 60 frequently replaced, serrated teeth that can measure up to 2.5 cm (1 in) in length. Its saliva is frequently blood-tinged, because its teeth are almost completely covered by gingival tissue that is naturally lacerated during feeding. This creates an ideal culture for the bacteria that live in its mouth. It also has a long, yellow, deeply forked tongue. Komodo dragon skin is reinforced by armoured scales, which contain tiny bones called osteoderms that function as a sort of natural chain-mail. This rugged hide makes Komodo dragon skin poorly suited for making into leather.
As with other Varanids, Komodo dragons have only a single ear bone, the stapes, for transferring vibrations from the tympanic membrane to thecochlea. This arrangement means they are likely restricted to sounds in the 400 to 2,000 hertz range, compared to humans who hear between 20 and 20,000 hertz. It was formerly thought to be deaf when a study reported no agitation in wild Komodo dragons in response to whispers, raised voices, or shouts. This was disputed whenLondon Zoological Garden employee Joan Proctor trained a captive specimen to come out to feed at the sound of her voice, even when she could not be seen.
The Komodo dragon is able to see as far away as 300 m (980 ft), but because its retinas only contain cones, it is thought to have poor night vision. The Komodo dragon is able to see in color, but has poor visual discrimination of stationary objects.
The Komodo dragon uses its tongue to detect, taste, and smell stimuli, as with many other reptiles, with the vomeronasal sense using the Jacobson’s organ, rather than using the nostrils. With the help of a favorable wind and its habit of swinging its head from side to side as it walks, a Komodo dragon may be able to detect carrion from 4–9.5 km (2.5–5.9 mi) away. It only has a few taste buds in the back of its throat. Its scales, some of which are reinforced with bone, have sensory plaques connected to nerves to facilitate its sense of touch. The scales around the ears, lips, chin, and soles of the feet may have three or more sensory plaques.
The Komodo dragon prefers hot and dry places, and typically lives in dry, open grassland, savanna, and tropical forest at low elevations. As anectotherm, it is most active in the day, although it exhibits some nocturnal activity. Komodo dragons are solitary, coming together only to breed and eat. They are capable of running rapidly in brief sprints up to 20 km/h (12 mph), diving up to 4.5 m (15 ft), and climbing trees proficiently when young through use of their strong claws. To catch out of reach prey, the Komodo dragon may stand on its hind legs and use its tail as a support. As it matures, its claws are used primarily as weapons, as its great size makes climbing impractical.
For shelter, the Komodo dragon digs holes that can measure from 1–3 m (3–10 ft) wide with its powerful forelimbs and claws. Because of its large size and habit of sleeping in these burrows, it is able to conserve body heat throughout the night and minimize its basking period the morning after.The Komodo dragon hunts in the afternoon, but stays in the shade during the hottest part of the day. These special resting places, usually located on ridges with cool sea breezes, are marked with droppings and are cleared of vegetation. They serve as strategic locations from which to ambush deer.
Komodo dragons are carnivores. Although they eat mostly carrion, they will also ambush live prey with a stealthy approach. When suitable prey arrives near a dragon’s ambush site, it will suddenly charge at the animal and go for the underside or the throat. It is able to locate its prey using its keen sense of smell, which can locate a dead or dying animal from a range of up to 9.5 km (5.9 mi). Komodo dragons have been observed knocking down large pigs and deer with their strong tails.
Komodo dragons eat by tearing large chunks of flesh and swallowing them whole while holding the carcass down with their forelegs. For smaller prey up to the size of a goat, their loosely articulated jaws, flexible skulls, and expandable stomachs allow them to swallow prey whole. The vegetable contents of the stomach and intestines are typically avoided. Copious amounts of red saliva the Komodo dragons produce help to lubricate the food, but swallowing is still a long process (15–20 minutes to swallow a goat). A Komodo dragon may attempt to speed up the process by ramming the carcass against a tree to force it down its throat, sometimes ramming so forcefully, the tree is knocked down. To prevent itself from suffocating while swallowing, it breathes using a small tube under the tongue that connects to the lungs. After eating up to 80% of its body weight in one meal, it drags itself to a sunny location to speed digestion, as the food could rot and poison the dragon if left undigested for too long. Because of their slow metabolism, large dragons can survive on as little as 12 meals a year. After digestion, the Komodo dragon regurgitates a mass of horns, hair, and teeth known as the gastric pellet, which is covered in malodorous mucus. After regurgitating the gastric pellet, it rubs its face in the dirt or on bushes to get rid of the mucus, suggesting, like humans, it does not relish the scent of its own excretions.
The largest animals eat first, while the smaller ones follow a hierarchy. The largest male asserts his dominance and the smaller males show their submission by use of body language and rumbling hisses. Dragons of equal size may resort to “wrestling”. Losers usually retreat, though they have been known to be killed and eaten by victors.
The Komodo dragon’s diet is wide-ranging, and includes invertebrates, other reptiles (including smaller Komodo dragons), birds, bird eggs, small mammals, monkeys, wild boar, goats, deer, horses, and water buffalo. Young Komodos will eat insects, eggs, geckos, and small mammals. Occasionally, they consume humans and human corpses, digging up bodies from shallow graves. This habit of raiding graves caused the villagers of Komodo to move their graves from sandy to clay ground and pile rocks on top of them to deter the lizards. The Komodo dragon may have evolved to feed on the extinct dwarf elephant Stegodonthat once lived on Flores, according to evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond.
The Komodo dragon drinks by sucking water into its mouth via buccal pumping (a process also used for respiration), lifting its head, and letting the water run down its throat.
Auffenberg described the Komodo dragon as having septic pathogens in its saliva (he described the saliva as “reddish and copious”), specifically the bacteria E.coli, Staphylococcus sp., Providencia sp., Proteus morgani, and P. mirabilis. He noted, while these pathogens can be found in the mouths of wild Komodo dragons, they disappear from the mouths of captive animals, due to cleaner diets and the use of antibiotics. This was verified by taking mucous samples from the external gum surfaces of the upper jaws of two freshly captured individuals. Saliva samples were analyzed by researchers at the University of Texas, who found 57 strains of bacteria growing in the mouths of three wild Komodo dragons, includingPasteurella multocida. The rapid growth of these bacteria was noted by Fredeking: “Normally it takes about three days for a sample of P. multocida to cover a Petri dish; ours took eight hours. We were very taken aback by how virulent these strains were”. This study supported the observation that wounds inflicted by the Komodo dragon are often associated with sepsis and subsequent infections in prey animals. How the Komodo dragon is unaffected by these virulent bacteria remains a mystery.
Research in 2013 suggested that the bacteria in the mouths of komodo dragons are ordinary and similar to those found in other carnivores. They actually have surprisingly good mouth hygiene. As Bryan Fry put it: “After they are done feeding, they will spend 10 to 15 minutes lip-licking and rubbing their head in the leaves to clean their mouth… Unlike people have been led to believe, they do not have chunks of rotting flesh from their meals on their teeth, cultivating bacteria.” The observation of prey dying of sepsis would then be explained by the natural instinct of water buffalos, who are not native to the islands where the Komodo dragon lives, to run into water when attacked. The warm, feces filled water would then cause the infections.
In late 2005, researchers at the University of Melbourne speculated the perentie (Varanus giganteus), other species of monitors, and agamids may be somewhat venomous. The team believes the immediate effects of bites from these lizards were caused by mild envenomation. Bites on human digits by a lace monitor (V. varius), a Komodo dragon, and a spotted tree monitor (V. scalaris) all produced similar effects: rapid swelling, localized disruption of blood clotting, and shooting pain up to the elbow, with some symptoms lasting for several hours.
In 2009, the same researchers published further evidence demonstrating Komodo dragons possess a venomous bite. MRI scans of a preserved skull showed the presence of two glands in the lower jaw. The researchers extracted one of these glands from the head of a terminally ill specimen in the Singapore Zoological Gardens, and found it secreted several different toxic proteins. The known functions of these proteins include inhibition of blood clotting, lowering of blood pressure, muscle paralysis, and the induction of hypothermia, leading to shock and loss of consciousness in envenomated prey. As a result of the discovery, the previous theory that bacteria were responsible for the deaths of Komodo victims was disputed.
Kurt Schwenk, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Connecticut, finds the discovery of these glands intriguing, but considers most of the evidence for venom in the study to be “meaningless, irrelevant, incorrect or falsely misleading”. Even if the lizards have venom-like proteins in their mouths, Schwenk argues, they may be using them for a different function, and he doubts venom is necessary to explain the effect of a Komodo dragon bite, arguing that shock and blood loss are the primary factors.
Other scientists such as University of Washington State’s Biologist Kenneth V. Kardong and Toxicologists Scott A. Weinstein and Tamara L. Smith, have stated that this allegation of venom glands “has had the effect of underestimating the variety of complex roles played by oral secretions in the biology of reptiles, produced a very narrow view of oral secretions and resulted in misinterpretation of reptilian evolution”. According to these scientists “reptilian oral secretions contribute to many biological roles other than to quickly dispatch prey”. These researchers concluded that, “Calling all in this clade venomous implies an overall potential danger that does not exist, misleads in the assessment of medical risks, and confuses the biological assessment of squamate biochemical systems”.