Animal Spotlight: Komodo Dragon

From that tiny common side-blotched lizard scurrying under your garage door to the bold Eastern Collared Lizard calmly basking right in front of you, our desert lizards have amazing ways to survive and thrive. If you’ve lived here a while, you’ve probably encountered hundreds of them. But now, Tucson, it’s time to meet The King of the Lizards.

The Reid Park Zoo’s expansion will be bringing us the biggest lizard on earth – the Komodo Dragon. These real-life fairytale creatures are huge, they’re fascinating, they’re apex predators, and they’ve been around for 100 million years or so. And though they have no natural enemies, they’re now vulnerable in the wild.  

They’re Huge.  And Hungry.

These giants average about 10 feet long and 154 pounds for males, and the largest Komodo Dragon on record was 10.3 feet long and weighed 366 pounds. And they’re incredibly strong, especially in the muscular jaw and neck area. They are such efficient eaters that they can eat up 80% of their own body weight in just one day. Luckily, their stomachs can expand. And they have another useful trick for that sluggish feeling you get after overeating. If they sense a threat and need to flee quickly, they simply throw up their stomach contents and lose the extra weight.

What about that fearsome bite?

The Komodo Dragon is an ambush predator, lurking patiently by the side of known wildlife paths to conserve energy, then leaping and striking when a tantalizing animal passes by. Its favorite meal in the wild is the Timor Deer, but it will eat anything from large water buffalo to its own newly-hatched offspring.

The Dragons’ teeth are large, they’re sharp, and they’re serrated. They’re also breeding grounds for bacteria, since their particular brand of oral hygiene, leaving scraps of their previous meals on and between their choppers, encourages the development of around 50 different bacterial strains. Seven of these are highly septic and thrive in the dragons’ saliva. As if that weren’t enough, researchers have also located a venom gland in the lower jaw, and that venom happens to be an anticoagulant. The effects of a dragon bite are generally profuse bleeding and the onset of sepsis. The victim will often flee, but after a few days, will surely succumb to the attack. And the Komodo Dragon has an acute sense of smell (via its flickering tongue) which can locate its injured prey even when it’s miles away.

Luckily, because the Dragons tend to scuffle with each other when they’re feeling peckish, this lethal bite has no effect – except perhaps for some disfiguration – on their fellow lizard kings.

Those poor little things.

Let’s begin with the hatchlings, whose sometimes unfortunate fate was alluded to above. Komodo dragons are generally solitary, but breed annually, though the female individuals lay eggs only every two years. Clutches are between 15-30 eggs.  But as the females are naturally solitary creatures, if it’s their year to lay eggs, they can always skip the actual breeding and through parthenogenesis, lay perfectly fertile eggs without the assistance of a male. Well, not perfectly fertile – all the “fatherless” hatchlings will be male.

The eggs are roughly the size of grapefruit, and are laid in nests on hillsides, on the ground, or in  mounds which have been vacated by another indigenous species, the orange-footed scrub fowl. Female  Komodo Dragons have also been known to dig decoy nests to protect the eggs from predators, including fellow Dragons. Some females behave in a maternal fashion for the three months of incubation, guarding the eggs, but others, like so many reptiles, simply lay the eggs and abandon them. Hatchlings lucky enough to make it to hatching immediately scramble up the nearest tree, where the heavy, hungry adults of their kind can’t reach them. They’re  about 16 inches long and are precocial – ready to find their own food right away. There’s plenty of food available up in the trees, and the young Dragons will enjoy this arboreal period of their lives for about 4 years, finally coming down when they’re around four feet in length.

The Daily life of an adult Komodo Dragon

The Dragons are indigenous to five islands in Indonesia, four in Komodo National Park (Komodo, Rinca, Gili Montang, and Gili Dasami) and another island outside the park, called Flores.

The mostly solitary life of adult Komodo Dragons consists of four things: hunting, eating, basking in the sun (they’re ectothermic), and lots and lots of sleeping. Most of these require very little energy, and researchers have discovered that even though these reptiles are capable of travelling long distances, they almost never stray from the areas where they and their progenitors have always lived.   

They do have great homing abilities, though, as demonstrated by an experiment in which adults were relocated on their native island, as far as 13.7 miles away from their home. Within four months, all of the dragons relocated on land had returned to their home territories. However, those relocated across a waterway, though they are perfectly capable of swimming, seemed to decide it was too much trouble – or perhaps too great an expenditure of energy, to return to their ancestral homes and adapted to the new locations without much fuss.

Why is this species now considered vulnerable?

Their numbers in the wild are decreasing, largely through human encroachment, habitat fragmentation, the illegal wildlife trade, and the burning of grasslands in order for humans to hunt the Dragons’ favorite prey, the Timor Deer. Also, as evolutionary stars, they generate a substantial amount of income for Indonesia through tourism – where guides feed them unnatural foods to make them drowsy and suitable for photographs with tourists, while those tourists, even if they don’t mean to, are altering the Dragons’ natural environments just by being there.   

The research and breeding of Komodo Dragons that can be safely done in human care is now more important than ever. The Reid Park Zoo hopes you’ll come see this most amazing lizard once the Pathway to Asia expansion is complete! Just by visiting, you’ll be helping the Zoo in their efforts to conserve these ancient and fascinating creatures.

10 Comments

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  1. I wasn’t sure if I liked Komodo Dragons, but this article was a real eye opener. What an ancient creature and what amazing adaptations. Now I understand why they’re called Dragons!

    Like

    • Dear Tucsonmesabiker,
      That’s a tough one, especially since there’s no scientific evidence. We did discover an enthusiastic group of people online who love to speculate on just such matchups, and their opinions are mixed! YouTube has a few “Crocodile vs. Komodo Dragon” videos, but it’s just not the same thing – crocs are so much larger and more aggressive than gators……

      Like

  2. They’re quite famous too!

    Anyone in the know recalls the 14th episode of Johnny Quest Dragons of Ashida: Dr Quest is invited to the island of Dr Ashida, who is genetically modifing lizards into dragon-like creatures.

    Oh my

    Like

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