Wednesday 13 October 2010

Komodo Dragon

Image source
The Komodo Dragon is a kind of monitor lizard and at some 10 feet, is the longest monitor and the longest lizard in the world. It is believed to be among the last of a whole host of giant monitors that once dominated Indonesia and Australia, filling in the apex predator niche usually taken up by mammals. Like a lot of old giants, or megafauna, in this part of the world, most of these gigantic lizards probably died out when they came into contact with humans. Today, the Komodo dragon survives on a few islands in central Indonesia, including one that happens to be called Komodo.

It is a very impressive beast. To look at the dragon is to step back into a far more dangerous time, a time of cold blood and scaly skin, malevolent glares and forked tongues. Not to mention around 60 serrated teeth growing to around an inch in length. It's all terrifying stuff, especially once you've grown accustomed to lions and tigers and bears.

Komodo dragons prefer hot, dry areas like grassland and savannah, mostly eating carrion; they have been
known to dig up shallow graves and eat human remains. They are also ambush predators, hiding in long grass before striking at unaware pigs or deer with brief sprints reaching speeds up to 20 kilometres per hour (12.4 mph). They can sometimes even knock animals down using their powerful tail, which can be as long as its body. Dragons have also been known to startle pregnant deer, with the intention of causing a miscarriage to get a meal that way and yes, some humans have also fallen prey, but mercifully few. Make no mistake, life can be nasty, brutish and short when the Komodo dragon is involved.

Komodo dragon, Varanus komodoensis (Ragunan Zo...Image via Wikipedia
It doesn't end there though. The dragon's sharp teeth are actually covered in gums which get cut up during feeding, giving them not only bloody saliva but also harbouring all manner of virulent bacteria. It was recently discovered that they are also venomous, though the effectiveness of their venom remains in some controversy. All in all though, the fact remains that a bite from a Komodo dragon is a very bad thing, leading to infection, blood loss, shock and death. Strangely, or obviously I suppose, dragons themselves are unaffected by the huge culture of bacterial death and disease living it up in their gobs, no-one quite knows how.

Komodo dragons are usually solitary, bad breath must surely play its part, but they will congregate to feed. In common with many reptiles, most obviously snakes, they can taste the air with their tongue which, as in snakes, is long and forked; waved around like some kind of antenna, the tongue picks up molecules in the air and makes sense of them with the Jacobson's organ. With this, dragons can smell carrion perhaps as far as 6 miles away, which is important because like Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park, they're not so good at spotting stationary objects. And being stationary is one of the keynote attributes of carrion. They can tear off lumps of flesh by using their claws to hold the corpse down, but if prey is small enough they may well swallow it whole. If they're being somewhat ambitious it can take as much as 20 minutes to do this and it might even speed up the process by ramming the carcass against a tree.

A Komodo dragon can eat up to 80 percent of its own body weight in one meal, after which it will sit in the sun to speed up the digestion process. With that much food in its gullet there is the strange possibilty of it all starting to rot right there in the stomach, which would poison and kill the bastard. Afterwards, it regurgitates a nasty lump of horns, hair and teeth called a gastric pellet, which is covered in gastric nastiness. It stinks, so the dragon rubs its mouth against the ground and bushes to get rid of the mucus. Even Komodo dragons have standards of some sort.

Commons:Category:Varanus komodoensisImage via Wikipedia
Komodo dragons also congregate to breed, when males stand on their hind legs supported by their tails and wrestle each other. The winner is the one who pins the other down, so thankfully it's a test of strength and not too much blood is shed. This is good, because he will need that strength for the early stages of courtship with the female, who will actually resist his advances. If he survives they can become a monogomous, bickering couple for years to come.

Females lay around 20 eggs, usually in a disused bird's nest. Birds that build warm nesting mounds on the ground that is, not little twig things in the trees. Having said that, youngsters hatch at the end of the rainy season when insects are abundant and they do in fact spend the first few years of life in trees. They find safety up there, not least from other Komodo dragons, 10 percent of whom's diet is comprised of younger Komodo dragons. Juveniles will even roll around in fecaes or the intestines of the dead to deter adults. Thank God we have things like the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. And other stuff like hygiene.

One last thing, the thing that went wrong in Jurassic Park in fact. The Komodo dragon is capable of parthenogenesis, which is Greek for 'virgin birth'. If there are no males, females can lay eggs regardless, some of which will fail to develop, the rest will hatch as male. Then she can resume normal sexual activity, or as normal as it's gonna get in that situation. Which is grand. It is believed that this could have helped the Komodo dragon populate new areas, like different islands. I reckon if the male could make more use of flowers, chocolates and romance, she maybe wouldn't have to go to such drastic lengths.


The video up there shows a snippet of Komodo dragons killing a massive water buffalo, slowly. Very slowly. You can see a fuller version here, it's gruesome and terrifying stuff. I take no responsibility for tears or nightmares. It comes from the Life series. I remember the camera guys talking about shooting the scene, it was all quite heart rending. You know, I reckon I'll find something a bit more fluffy for next time.

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1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately I found myself getting increasingly repulsed as I contemplated various aspects of their character. Sometimes I just get a bit appalled and the whole biting a buffalo and watching it die over a couple weeks really did it. I could've handled the infanticide and all the other stuff if it wasn't for that. A bit silly I suppose.

    Still, I hoped it didn't annoy you too much. Thanks for reading!