Komodo Dragon avoids the hot, tropical sun by finding shade
under a tree. (Copyright
Lee Krystek, 1998)
You pause from hiking down the mountain to
enjoy the sunset. Below lies a serene tropical beach and above
a cloud forest. Around you are hills covered with savanna. In
the ravines between the hills are monsoon forests. An amazing
range of environments, you think to yourself, for an island only
twenty miles long and ten miles wide.
Suddenly from the thick grass nearby a buck
bolts and runs across your path. You are startled, but soon recover.
After all, it is only a deer, and in a few seconds your heart
rate drops back to normal. Still, something is not right. You
have the feeling you are being watched. A feeling of dread. The
hairs on the back of your neck suddenly stand on end. But you
don't see anything.
Then you notice a smell. Unpleasant. Very
unpleasant. You hear a sound in the nearby grass. You turn to
look, and then it happens. The grass flies apart and something
comes at you. Reptilian with cold, dead eyes. It's big. Very big.
Twice your size from its ugly head to its massive tail and more
than your weight. The creature's jaws open to display a set of
inch-long serrated teeth dripping with deadly, infectious saliva.
The speed of this monster is incredible.
Before you can even move it is upon you, its wide mouth biting
down on your thigh...
What is this? A scene from the next film installment of Jurassic
Park? No, the above can really happen and has really
happened on the small Indonesian Island of Komodo. A bit of
remote land where dragons dwell. They are the largest lizards
in the world, the Komodo Dragons.
young dragon on the prowl. (Copyright
Lee Krystek, 1998)
The discovery of the Komodo Dragons (Varanus
komodoensis) is one of the cryptozoological surprises of the
20th century. Before 1912 the species was completely unknown and
large lizards were thought to be extinct. Then, in that year,
a party of pearl fishermen anchored at an almost entirely-unknown
isle in a chain of islands called the Lesser Sundas. The fishermen
brought back stories of an enormous, prehistoric creature living
there. The island's name was Komodo.
An expedition followed from the Buitenzorg Zoological
Museum in Java. A report about the dragons was published, but
received little attention in the years leading up to World War
I. It wasn't until 1926 that an expedition
from the American Museum of Natural History, under the leadership
of W. Douglas Burden, traveled to this remote island to
further investigate the dragons and, if possible, bring some back
The expedition discovered that the stories were
true. The largest of these lizards measured over ten feet from
nose to tail. The males were the top predator on the island, capable
of killing a water buffalo several times its weight. The Burden
expedition, with considerable difficulty, managed to bring home
twelve dead specimens and two live lizards.
or Toxic Bacteria?
For years scientists
thought that the Komodo Dragon did not poison its victims,
but that its fearsome bite infected the animal with septic
bacteria that slowly weakened and killed it. A recent study
by led by Dr. Bryan Fry from the University of Melbourne,
however, showed that the Dragon does have venomous glands
in its mouth. The venom keeps the victim's blood from clotting
at the wound leading to a drop in blood pressure. The loss
of blood and the lower the blood pressure weaken the animal
and cause it to eventually stop moving so the Dragon can
safely approach and finish it. Fry believes that this specialized
bite and venom shortens the contact the Dragon has with
its victim allowing it to take much larger prey than might
otherwise be expected.
The Komodo dragons still live on Komodo today
and have also been discovered on several
neighboring islands. Though there are as many dragons alive
today as in 1912, they are still considered an endangered species
because they have such a small habitat that an ecological disaster,
like a single volcanic eruption, might wipe them out.
Are the dragons dangerous to humans?
Yes. A Swiss tourist who sat down to relax while
the rest of his tour group went onward was attacked and eaten
by a dragon. All that was left was a piece of his camera. In March
of 2009 an Indonesian fisherman was killed when he trespassed
one of the remote islands in the Dragon's habitat in search of
fruit. Though incidents are only few in number, that might be
because the dragons live in such isolated locations. The Island
of Komodo has only 800 human inhabitants and double the number
of dragons. Most of the other islands where the dragons live have
no permanent human residents at all.
The dragons can eat up to 80 percent of their own
weight in a single sitting. Their attack strategy is to wait in
ambush, then rush forward and tear a single large bite from the
victim. The victim soon collapses due to blood loss. Though most
Komodo dragons prefer wild bore or deer as their meals, they will
try to attack and consume almost every other animal they can find,
including other dragons (Interestingly enough for reasons scientists
still don't understand, the dragons are not susceptible to infections
from the bites of other Komodos).
When the first expeditions landed on the island
they recorded the largest male dragons to have a top weight of
around 300 pounds. More recent studies have indicated that this
figure is high,. probably due to the a substantial amount of undigested
food in those specimens' stomachs. A more typical weight for the
largest dragons is probably around 160 pounds. Though the Komodo's
can see fairly well, they do most of their hunting based on smell.
Also a dragon can detect the smell of carrion from a distance
of several miles when the wind is right. Although they will hunt
when they have to, these giant lizards are more than happy to
consume an already dead animal when they come across one.
close up of the armor-like skin of a Komodo Dragon (Courtesy
of Wikipedia Commons and Phyzome)
Komodos are very fast for short sprints and can
scramble up a hill as fast as a man can run on level ground. They
have huge curved claws and teeth similar in shape to a Tyrannosaurus
Rex's. Like a snake they can stretch their jaws to swallow large
chunks of their victims. The Komodo's defense includes a thick
skin with heavy folds that make the lizard look as if it is wearing
a suit of chain mail armor. They are also one of the smartest
lizards and their eyes seem to hold a primal, but clear intelligence.
Why are Komodos the top predators on the island
instead of an animal like the tiger? Scientists think that it
has to do with the creatures's metabolism. The Komodo Dragon,
like most reptiles, is cold-blooded (scientists continue to debate
whether dinosaurs were cold-blooded).
This means it doesn't maintain a constant body temperature, but
is dependent on the sun to warm it up enough in the morning so
it can take on vigorous activity.
Tigers are warm-blooded and maintain a constant
body temperature at all times. This allows them to be active no
matter what the temperature or time of day.
Animals who are warm-blooded burn much more energy
than cold-blooded ones. This means they must eat more. Scientists
think that islands like Komodo are just too small and have too
few prey animals to feed a population of warm-blooded, high-energy
tigers, but can support the lower energy demands of the cold-blooded
So are the Komodos the largest lizards out there?
Fossil finds in Queensland, Australia, indicate that the Komodo
Dragon had a much larger cousin, Megalania prisca, in the
prehistoric past. Megalania was more than twenty feet in
length and weighed more than 1000 pounds. Though it sounds like
a dinosaur, it was a giant lizard. Unlike the dinosaurs, Megalania
lived at a time when humans were present and undoubtedly Megalania
consumed some Homo sapiens.
This gigantic lizard lived during the Pleistocene
period. It made its debut about 1.5 million years ago and disappeared
around 19,000 years ago. Or did it?
There have been sightings of large lizards in the
Australian outback for some time. In July 1979, cryptozoologist
Rex Gilroy was called to a freshly-plowed field by a farmer. Across
the field were 30 or so tracks from what looked like an enormous
lizard. While most of the tracks had been ruined by rain, Gilroy
was able to make a plaster cast of one that had been preserved.
The footprint looked surprisingly like something that might have
been made by a Megalania.
Other incidents include a farmer who saw a lizard
moving along the edge of his field. Using a set of fence posts
as a guide, the farmer estimated the animal's length at twenty
to twenty-five feet. In 1961 three woodcutters were scared by
a lizard they thought to be twenty feet long.
The largest known Australian lizard is Varanus
giganteus, a relative of Megalania and the Komodos.
At six feet long and with a weight of thirty to forty pounds,
though, it seems too small to explain these reports.
So are there giant lizards still out in the wilds
of Australia? The only way of knowing for sure is for somebody
to bring one back, dead or alive. The Komodo dragon surprised
science once with its existence. Perhaps the Megalania
Copyright Lee Krystek, 2010
Krystek,1998-2009. All Rights Reserved