Here Be Dragons!

Cultures throughout the world believe in dragons. From the fire-breathing wyrms of Europe to the feathered serpents of Mesoamerica to the mystical lung of China, these beasts have been with us since time immemorial. Everyone knows what a dragon is and knows they don’t exist, right? Wrong! There is one modern reptile that, with the exception of being able to fly, is as close to an actual, facial dragon as one can get. It even breathes fire of a sort. Grab your lance, mount your trusty steed, and get ready to meet the mighty Komodo dragon.

Are Komodo dragons really dragons?

Despite the name, Komodo dragons are not really dragons but gigantic lizards. The belong to the monitor lizard family, which includes some of the largest lizards in the world. Among giant lizards, the Komodo stands apart. They can stretch eight to 10 feet in length and outweigh an average man. While several other monitor species can achieve similar or even slightly greater lengths, none of them weigh even half as much. As a result, the Komodo dragon is considered the world’s largest lizard. Like Smaug from The Hobbit, Komodos have armor like ten-fold shields. They have small bones called osteoderms embedded in their scales that act like chainmail. A Komodo dragon can live for up to 30 years.

Where do Komodo dragons live?

Komodo dragons live on only a few Indonesian islands. They can be found throughout the forests and grasslands of Flores, Rinca, Gili Montag, and Komodo. It was on this latter island that the species was first discovered and named after. Fossil evidence shows that the Komodo dragon actually originated in Australia almost 4 million years ago. During the last Ice Age sea levels were much lower and Indonesia and Australia were connected, allowing the Komodo to disperse across landmasses.

What do Komodo dragons eat?

The Komodo dragon is the only lizard to regularly prey on animals larger than itself and in the absence of competition from mammalian carnivores, rules its environment as the apex predator. Thanks to their large size, great strength, and formidable natural weapons, Komodos can kill just about whatever they wish and eat anything from insects, other invertebrates, and small reptiles to birds, eggs, monkeys, and carrion. Their preferred prey, however, are ungulates like pigs, goats, deer, and even species as large as water buffalo and horses. Infamous for cannibalism, over 10% of a large Komodo dragon’s diet consists of smaller Komodos. Prey is typically ambushed, with the lizards rushing out from hiding to inflict a lacerating bite to the animal’s flanks or underbelly, although the Komodo can pump its throat like a bellows to allow it to actively chase prey at speeds of up to 12 miles per hour. Death is typically caused by shock and blood loss, assuming the prey survives the initial onslaught. The Komodo has an oddly weak bite for such a strong predator, so it relies on the combination of its incredibly sharp, serrated teeth and heavily-built shoulder and neck musculature to dismember animals to big to swallow whole into bite-sized chunks. A hungry Komodo dragon can eat up to 80% of its own weight in one sitting, a meal that could last it for a month or longer.

Do Komodo dragons breathe fire?

Komodo dragons may not actually belch flames form their mouths, their breathe is no laughing matter. For many years, it was believed that Komodo saliva contained toxic bacteria. When the lizard would bite an animal, it was transfer some of this bacteria. The prey animal would become infected and die of sepsis a few days later. Using its forked tongue, the Komodo would track the wounded animal without risk of serious injury. However, this hypothesis has recently been debunked. The bacteria in a Komodo’s mouth are very similar to those found in the mouths of most other carnivorous animals. It turns out the saliva actually contains venom. A scan of a preserved Komodo head reveled to large glands on the underside of the lower jaw that secrete a variety of toxic proteins. Whereas snakes have an elaborate venom delivery system involving hollowing fangs and muscles around the venom glands that can be contracted at will, lizards have a more indirect approach to envenomating prey. When a Komodo dragon clamps down, the physical action of the bite puts pressure on the glands in the jaw and forces the venom through ducts to ooze out of the gums between the teeth.  As a result of this the discovery, the Komodo dragon is now considered to be the largest venomous animal on the planet.

Are Komodo dragons dangerous to people?

The Komodo dragon is the only lizard that has the ability to predate on humans. It does not happen frequently, but there are a number of attacks on record. Legend tells of the first white man to fall victim to the dragons’ hunger, a European tourist who told his group to go on ahead without him while he took a rest, When the group returned to the spot where they left him, supposedly all the found was a bloody shoe. Usually, Komodos are uninterested in people. They do approach villages in hopes of snagging a chicken or dog as an easy meal and they have been known to occasionally exhume graves to scavenge human corpses.

Can you buy a Komodo dragon as a pet?

Monitor lizards have been popular in the reptile hobby for a long time, but Komodo dragons are not available on the commercial market. A 10-foot, 200-pound flesh-eating lizard capable of bringing down an animal ten times its bodyweight really doesn’t sound like the type of critter you want to cuddle up to. However, Komodos kept in zoos have been observed to be surprisingly docile. Being highly intelligent, they can recognize individual keepers and will come up to them seeking attention much as a dog would. They have also been seen playing, a behavior not usually associated with reptiles.

Are Komodo dragons endangered?

Due to its restricted habitat, the Komodo dragon is listed as vulnerable. Unlike many other endangered species, the Komodo is not directly exploited. Thanks to its bone-studded hide, their skin makes poor leather. Its greatest threats are natural disasters, as a large enough one could wipe out the entire wild population of a little over 3000. They are also at risk as humans compete with them for prey and living space. According to international law, it is illegal to trade in Komodo dragon skins or live animals.

 

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