Draconic Realm: The Land of the Komodo Dragon

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Out of the deep wilderness in the island of Komodo, a large water buffalo infirmly makes its way to a nearby body of water. It is weak and appears to be suffering from great fatigue. Although it fills itself with water, it only grows more and more ill. Near its final moments, the once mighty beast collapses, now unable to support its own bulk. Its body has been under the affliction of great fatigue for the past few days, causing it to fall behind and lose sight of its own herd. A terribly infected wound on its left hind leg is the clear source of its illness. It has brought the animal to its limits, and the debilitated buffalo draws its final breath. The silence of this moment is rather ephemeral, though. Almost immediately, several creeping figures slowly come into visibility, having apparently followed the buffalo. They sport a fearsome reptilian appearance consisting of large, scaly bodies, sharp claws, and long tails. The large lizards suddenly rush their way to the dead buffalo, excited by the scent of death. Upon reaching the carcass, they rip and tear away at its flesh, gulping down huge portions of meat. This frenzy continues for hours and the hungry reptiles somehow manage to continue eating. Eventually, the buffalo is consumed entirely. Not even bones are left behind, only a sanguine disarray where the carcass was once present. Having consumed their massive meal, the large lizards part ways and soon disappear into the wilderness. This land is under their rule, the most powerful of all lizards. This is the land of the Komodo dragon.

Komodo dragons are commonly found in dry habitats.

While there is no such thing as a true dragon, the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) is certainly an intimidating reptile. Being the largest members of the monitor lizard family as well as the largest of all lizards, adult males reach an average length of around 9 feet and 150 lbs (females are generally smaller). They possess large bodies with long heads as well as lengthy, powerful tails. Their teeth are sharp and serrated, much like the teeth of several shark species. One of the species’ deadliest weapons is thought to be its saliva, which overflows with more than 50 strains of bacteria.[1] Komodo dragons also contain venom glands in their lower jaws. The venom’s effects include inhibition of blood clotting, lowering of blood pressure, and hypothermia. The discovery of these venom glands has led to some confusion as to whether the lizards kill by using their bacterial saliva, venom, or a combination of both.[2] They also possess long forked tongues which aid them in detecting traces of odor in the air, allowing them to search more easily for rotting carcasses. The tongue is used in combination with the Jacobson’s organ, an olfactory sense organ located at the roof of the dragon’s mouth.[3] This is very helpful to the species, since their nostrils are of little use to them as a result of lacking diaphragms.[4] Some of their other senses are also not very advanced. They possess only a small amount of taste buds at the back of their throats[5] and have poor hearing senses at best. In fact, it was once thought that Komodo dragons were deaf before it was finally discovered that the animals did, in fact, respond to sounds! However, Komodo dragons possess excellent vision which allows them to see as far away as 300 meters and even distinguish color, though they do not possess good night vision and have difficulty discerning stationary objects.[6]

A combination of venom and sharp teeth makes the Komodo dragon's bite absolutely deadly. Photo Credit: Anna Yu/Getty Images

These bulky reptiles are found in the islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores, Gili Dasami, and Gili Motang. They mostly live in hot environments such as dry grasslands, tropical forests, and savannas. The population of these lizards is rather low, and poaching continues to threaten the species.[7] Fortunately, the foundation of wildlife reserves has been of great aid to the species.

Despite their great power, Komodo dragons mostly survive by scavenging. Their ability to detect odor in the air allows them to track down carrion locations as far as 2.5 miles away.[8] It is not unusual for several dragons to arrive at the same feeding site. The situation can become rather dangerous for smaller individuals, as larger Komodo dragons will not hesitate to attack and kill younger lizards. On occasions, small dragons will actually roll in feces in an attempt to hide their scent from the more aggressive adults. Although messy, feeding behavior is surprisingly orderly; the largest males eat first, followed by the smaller individuals in order of size. Some of the braver youngsters may occasionally take their chances and forage some scraps while the adults are busy feeding. The entire carcass is consumed, bones and all.[9] However, when scavenging is not an option, these powerful reptiles have no problem taking down prey of their own. Much like crocodiles and snakes, the Komodo dragon is an ambush predator. Using camouflage to mask its presence, it will sit motionless and wait for unsuspecting prey like deer to pass by. Once the prey item ventures close enough, the dragon lunges at the prey and knocks it down to the ground (very small animals are simply killed with a bite to the neck). If this initial attack is successful, the powerful reptile will then commence to rip and tear at its target with its sharp teeth and powerful claws! Once the prey is incapacitated, the dragon will direct a killing strike at its stomach. The victim then bleeds to death, and the dragon can begin to feed. Even if the deer manages to escape, it will usually die due to the toxic bite of its attacker.[10] Large animals such as buffalo are also targets, even though they are much more powerful than the dragons themselves. The Komodo dragon deals with large prey such as buffalo by simply delivering a strong bite and retreating, leaving the buffalo to die slowly from envenomation. During this long event, the Komodo dragon (eventually joined by other hungry Komodo dragons) will calmly follow the buffalo and wait for it to expire. Being killed by a Komodo dragon appears to be the very opposite of a quick and painless death.

Komodo dragons are the largest and most powerful of all lizards.

Komodo dragons reach sexual maturity at 5-7 years of age.[11] Mating occurs between the months of May and August, usually around feeding sites. Males battle each other by wrestling in upright postures, using their powerful tails as supports. These incredible disputes of power can easily become more and more violent as the dragons make use of their teeth and claws. The vanquished dragon is thrown to the ground, and the victor lays claim to his mate. The male courts the female by flicking her snout and body with his tongue, and the pair soon copulate. It is in the month of September that the female lays her eggs. She can either dig a burrow for her eggs, or take the easy way out and simply steal the burrow of terrestrial Megapode birds which share the Komodo dragon’s range. Either way, she will need to make use of a decent burrow in order to properly incubate her eggs. Komodo dragon females may lie on their eggs as they incubate in order to provide them with protection.[12] Hatchlings are small and vulnerable to predation. Fortunately, they are able to climb trees in order to escape danger (unlike the much heavier adults). Though life can be very short for these small lizards, the survivors will grow to become the greatest predators of their habitat and can look forward to a lifespan as long as 30 years.[13]

Though the species is threatened, wildlife reserves have provided protection for Komodo dragons that will ensure them a more positive future. © WWF-Canon/Michel Terrettaz

Although they are left with a relatively small population in an equally small range, Komodo dragons have succeeded in dominating their habitat and making their presence well known through their power and survival abilities. Although threatened, their future is not bleak. People are aware to the threats that the species faces, and are doing what they can to ensure that these unique reptiles will be around for many more generations to come. Komodo dragons truly are special and interesting animals, and among the last remaining species whose ancient characteristics provide us with a glimpse of a time when giant reptiles walked the earth.

[1] “Komodo Dragon Varanus komodoensis.” National Available from Internet; accessed 7 April 2011.

[2] Carolyn, Barry. “Komodo Dragons Kill With Venom, Researchers Find.” (2009): National 18 May 2009.

[3] “The Komodo Dragon.” Available from Internet; accessed 8 April 2011.

[4] Tara Darling (Illustrator). Komodo Dragon: On Location (Darling, Kathy. on Location.). Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books

[5] “Komodo Dragon”. Singapore Zoological Gardens. Archived from the original on 2006-11-27. Retrieved 2011-04-08.

[6] “Komodo Dragon.” Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Available from Internet; accessed 8 April 2011.

[7] Trivedi, Bijal P.. “Trapping Komodo Dragons for Conservation.” (2003): National 29 Jan 2003.

[8] “Komodo Dragon.” Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Available from Internet; accessed 8 April 2011

[9] “The Komodo Dragon.” Available from Internet; accessed 8 April 2011.

[10] “Komodo Dragon.” Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Available from Internet; accessed 8 April 2011

[11] “KOMODO DRAGON.” Available from Internet; accessed 8 April 2011.

[12] Ciofi, Claudio. “The Komodo Dragon.” (1999): 06 Mar 1999.

[13] Ibid

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On April 9, 2011
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