Behold the Living Dragon, the Komodo Dragon. Living on a tiny island called Komodo, the ancestors of these giant lizards were walking the earth in prehistoric times as long as 40 - 60 million years ago. While they can not fly or breathe fire, Komodo Dragons can grow up to ten feet long and weigh as much as four hundred pounds. Armed with razor sharp teeth, the real-life dragon is capable of swalowing up to 80% of its own body weight in one meal. Read on to learn more about the Komodo Dragon.
Surrounded by swift currents, and man-eating sharks, the Komodo Island is located in the middle of the 17,000 islands between the Pacific and Indian oceans known as Indonesia. The island is relativley small in size, just twenty-two miles long and twelve miles wide and since Komodo is close to the equater the island is always very hot. The weather on Komodo Island is very dry except when the monsoon winds bring in heavy rains from December to March. Ancient maps would mark this Island by writing Beware! Here Be Dragons! to warn explorers of the giant lizards that lived there.
Although the majority of the Komodo dragons live on the Komodo Island, the can also be found on three surrounding islands: Flores, Gili Motang and Rinca. Until the 1970's they also inhabithe the island of Padar. A big blaze swept across the island in 1984. The plant eating animals that survived the fire had no food, and as a result died of starvtion. This forced the Komodo Dragons to swim over to Rinja or Komodo in order to survive.
Komodo Island & Surrounding Habitat
(Click for larger immage)
Why are the dragons only found on their remote island?
There are indications that the Komodo Islands were joined to their eastern neighbours about 20,000 years ago due to global changes in sealevels due to the Pleistocene Ice Age. It is possible that the dragons were found throughout Indonesia but only those on Komodo survived unmolested. Fossils of stegadons, pygmy elephants about the size of a water buffalo, have also been found on these islands and the mainland. It is possible that these were the ancient dragon's prey, although prey species similar to the modern day deer and wild boar may also have been present.
St Wong and Dragon:
The Komodo dragons were probably discovered as early as the 2nd century AD Chinese traders seeking to plunder Komodo's underwater treasure trove of pearls, returned home with tales that are said to have enhanced the mythology of the Chinese dragon . Maps were made with a note saying "Here be dragons", warning people of Komodo's inhospitable nature. These stories were taken lightly as no one seriously believed that dragons existed.
The dragons were 'discovered' by Westerners in 1910 when Lieutenant van Steyn van Hensbrock, a Dutchman stationed in Flores, followed up on local stories of a "land crocodile" and a report by a Dutch pearling fleet of a 6-7m long creature. A year later, he finally found and shot a specimen. He sent the skin and photographs to Peter A Ouwens of the Zoological Museum of Bogor, Java. Ouwens was intrigued and collected more specimens. After examining these, Ouwens wrote a paper in 1912 declaring them the largest lizards and suggesting their current name: Varanus komodoensis. In 1915, the Dutch colonial government protected the rare lizards, making it illegal to hunt or capture them without permission. Before this prohibition, up to 600 were killed a year as hunting trophie. However, little attention was paid to the dragons with the outbreak of World War I.
I n 1926, after the war ended, Douglas Burden of the American Museum of Natural History, undertook a serious expedition. He captured 27 specimens and studied more than 70. Only two of the dragons survived to be displayed at the Bronx Zoo, New York, but died shortly after. When Burden returned, he told his adventures to Merian C. Cooper, who produced the classic film King Kong! An exciting account of this expedition is at the Museum of Unnatural History
Lifespan: 20-40 years.
Babies: 20-25 eggs are laid, incubation 8-9 months. Maturity in 5 years.
Social life: Solitary, although several may gather at a large carcass.
Habitat: Dry rocky areas.
The longest lizards: The Komodo may be the largest but it is not the longest. The longest lizard is a monitor lizard found in New Guinea, the Varanus salvadorii . Known as the Papua monitor, this is the longest lizard, measuring up to 4.75 metres. The bulk of the length, about 70%, is made up of a long, whiplike tail which helps the lizard balance in trees.
Ulike most mamals, Komodo dragons have six senses:
Toouch: Komodo Dragons have hard body armor made up of scales. Since the scales make it difficult to feel anything, the Komodo have special spots or sensory plaques. At least one of these plaques, which are conencted to sensory nerves, can be found on every scale.
Sight: Komodo Dragons can see as far as 985 feet. Because their retinas only have cones, the can see color but have poor vision in dim light. The Komodo have round pupils that are more like the eyes of mammals then reptiles.
Hearing: Komodo Dragons hearing range is much smaler then humans. They have trouble hearing low-piched and high-pitched sounds
Smell: Although the Komodo can smell through the nostrils on the end of the snout, it is not very effective. The Komodo Dragon does not have a diaphragm, the muscle that pushes air in and out of the lungs. This makes it almost imposible to get enought air into the nostrils in order to pick up a scent unless a breeze is blowing directly into them.
Taste: Dragons have no taste buds in their mouth, tounge. The only have a few in the back of their throat.
Vomero-Nasal: This "sixth sense" is a combination of taste and smell. The Komodo uses a specialized forked toongue to gather chemical information from the air and surrounding objects. The gathered chemicals are rubbed off onto pads on the floor of the mouth. These pads send information to a small a small organ (Jacobson's organ) that translates the information and sends it to the brain. By analyzing molecules in the air in this way the Komodo Dragon can "smell" objects as far away as 2.5 miles.
Komodo dragons have 60 small (about 2cm), sharp, backward pointing, laterally compressed and serrated teeth. These are designed to slice and tear and cut very effectively but not to chew. New teeth emerge behind the old and not under it as in other lizards. This type of dentition is rare in lizards but common in sharks. These teeth are hidden in the fleshy gums, which is why the dragons do not have the ‘toothy smile' that crocodilians do. Since the teeth of the Komodo dragons are not designed to chew, lumps of food are torn off, thrown to the back of the mouth, and swallowed whole.
Although the Komodo dragon doesn't breath fire, it's mouth contains death. It has a mouthful of sharp teeth similar to that of sharks. The saliva of the dragon also contains at least 4 types of toxic bacteria. The dragon's tooth serrations harbor bits of meat from the dragon's last meal. Komodo dragons also frequently bite through their own gums as they eat. The saliva and blood combination and the protei- rich residue in the teeth provide an ideal culture for the bacteria. These make the dragon's breath quite foul! A Komodo's bite causes profuse bleeding and are slow to heal. Although a dragon is not always successful in immediately bringing down a large animal, the bitten animal usually dies soon after, usually within a week. Infected by the bacteria, its wounds become infected and turn septic (septicemia). The Komodo dragon tracks the weakened animal, harassing it until the animal finally dies.
Komodo dragons can run at 14-18 km/hr over short distances, using their short, powerful legs armed with sharp claws. But they cannot chase down swift-footed prey like deer.
Hunting & Diet
The Land Of The Dragons:
The conditions are far from hospitable. Steep hills, rocky ground and shallow soil make up the landscape of the dragons' home. Fires and long droughts are common. Rain is sparse, averaging 800mm on a good year. Temperatures can reach 40-43degC after the dry season.
Adaptations to the habitat:
The Komodo dragon has many fascinating adaptations to survive in the harsh, rugged islands.
The Komodo dragon is totally carnivorous and eat anything they can overpower. While smaller Komodos have to be content with eggs, lizards, snakes and rodents, the larger ones hunt deer, wild pigs, water buffalos and even horses. Komodo dragons are cannibalistic, and adults will prey on young ones as well as old and sick dragons. Other dragons may make up to 10% of a dragon's diet. There are few verified accounts of dragons actually attacking living humans to eat them, although like any other animal, they will attack in self-defence.
Lean mean eating machine:
While a mammalian predator might leave behind 25 – 30% of the kill, the Komodos consume almost everything, including fur, feathers, hoofs and antlers. Only the herbivorous contents of the stomach and intestines are left behind. Komodos also have a very efficient digestive system. Everything is digested and only 8-13% is excreted. In a mammalian predator like the tiger, this figure may be 32-37%.
Dragon on the hunt:
The Komodo dragon is an avid hunter. But if sufficient food is available, scavenging is generally preferred as it takes less energy than hunting.
When a male decides to mate with a female, he stimulates her by flicking his tongue over her snout and body. They nudge snouts, rub chins, bite necks and scratch. Skin gland secretions also help in the stimulation. Like snakes, a male Komodo has a pair of penises called (hemipenes) usually held inverted inside his cloaca. To mate, the male everts a his hemipenes, then crawls on the back of the female and inserts one of the hemipenes into her cloaca. It is over very quickly.
The mating habits of the dragons are not fully understood. The mating season for dragons is in the middle of the dry season from May to November. As the dragons are normally solitary and territorial, courtship often occurs when the dragons gather at a carcass to feed. Large evenly matched males compete in fierce battles for the attention of the females . Reminescent of snakes, they wrestle upright, using their tails for support, grabbing each other with their front limbs, snapping at each other, attempting to throw their opponent to the ground. The loser is the first one to fall. Blood is usually drawn in these battles. The loser either runs off or lies prone and motionless.
Dinner date or just dinner?
How do such dangerous cannibalistic creatures get around to mating instead of eating each other? Some studies suggest dragons perform mating rituals whenever they meet, so when mating season comes around, the females are less aggressive towards males. It is also suspected that pheromones may tell the female that the male approaching her will not attack. It is also suspected that the animals know each other. Animals with overlapping territories may have come across one another regularly, and may have mated before.
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The female Komodo dragons lay an average of about 20 to 25 soft, leathery eggs in September. The eggs are about twice the size of a chicken egg, weighing in at about 125g. The eggs incubate for about 8 – 9 months during the wet season. About a quarter to a fifth of each clutch fails to hatch. Wild boar or other Komodos may eat whole clutches. Although parental care after egg laying is minimal or non-existent, it some cases it appears that the female is guarding the nest site prior to egg-laying, protecting it from other females. While some females lay the whole clutch of eggs over a few hours, others are more sporadic and can take several weeks. This nest guarding behaviour could be associated with the slower egg laying.
The eggs are laid in depressions dug on hill slopes or pilfered nests of the orange-legged scrub fowl. This bird is about the size of a chicken, and instead of sitting on the eggs to incubate them, it lays them in mounds of rotting vegetation. As the vegetation rots, it creates warmth, which incubates the egg. The Komodo dragon lays its eggs much deeper than the bird does, about 1.5-1.65m from the surface. This is because the temperature needed by the Komodo dragon eggs is lower than that required by the birds. Old, disused nests are preferred, as they no longer generate internal heat.
Komodo hatchlings are on average about 30 – 40 cm long and weigh about 100 grams at birth. They spend their first year in trees. Thus, unlike the mud-coloured adults, hatchlings are attractively marked with yellow spots and lines which camouflage them on bark and among branches. They have a long, thin body and a proportionally longer tail than in adults, an adaptation to living in trees. Living in trees not only keeps them from predators like adult Komodos, which are too heavy to climb trees, but it also avoids competing for the same scarce food resources as adults. Babies start with insects and small reptiles, graduating to small mammals and birds as juveniles. In about a year, they reach about 1m long and then live permanently on the ground. They reach maturity at about 5 years, by which time they can weigh 25kg and reach 2m long.
Komodo dragons are solitary animals, although they often congregate at large kills. They either have a fixed home range or are wanderers. Komodos start life as wanderers until they find a home range although some may remain as wanderers. The size of the animal's home range depends mostly on food availability and may be up to 500ha. Territories of dragons may overlap each other. A dragon may travel anywhere from 1.8 - 10km a day in search of food, as well as other Komodos.
When the dragons do meet, like around carcasses, social order is quickly established. Chemical signals probably allow individual animals to recognize each other. Visual signals are used around kills. Smaller dragons signal submission by pacing in a circle in a stately ritualised walk with their tails straight out, throwing their bodies side to side in exaggerated convulsions.
If the presence of a larger dragon itself does not intimidate, it adopts a threat posture. As it hisses, it lowers its head holding it at an angle, arching and enlarging the neck, and arching the back and tail. It moves in a slow and stiff legged way. If all this doesn't work, it lashes out with its tail. Attacks can lead to serious wounds or death. Dragons are protected by thick, chain-mail like skin.
Images starting with Otto are Copyrighted by Otto de Voogd
His site has a gread story about his visit to Komodo island
"Komodo Dragon " (On-line), Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Accessed June 05, 2005 at http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/ReptilesAmphibians/Facts/FactSheets/Komododragon.cfm
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