Asia, Nature

Celebration of the lizard

Komodo

The world’s largest lizard is a shrewd predator that will stop at nothing for its next meal. Meet the Komodo dragon.

Dinosaurs may have been extinct for hundreds of millions of years, but reptiles remain that carry their legacy. That, at least, is the impression one gets of the Komodo dragon, a three-metre-long killing machine whose favourite preys include pigs, deer and large water buffalos. Even humans are unlikely to escape its wrath: in February, two people were attacked by a giant dragon that had somehow wandered into their office. They ended up in hospital.

The home of this sinister-looking lizard is a group of volcanic islands in the centre of the Indonesian archipelago. The government created a national park here in 1980 to protect it, with UNESCO adding its endorsement in 1991. However, conservation efforts have shifted towards the rich marine life along the coasts, which is threatened by illegal fishing. The Komodo dragon is stated as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, but there are no immediate worries: the current population is a stable 4,000.

On these islands, the Komodo dragon is king. It has no natural predators, and spends most of its time hunting down helpless victims – or using its exceptional smell to track down dead animals across a range of several kilometres. As if its appearance did not make it creepy enough, it is also a notorious stalker: it hides in overhangs and ridges, waiting to strike. When the time is right, it launches a full-out ambush attack, fronted by 60 large, curvy teeth.

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Once attacked, the dragon’s victim is unlikely to survive. Even if the animal manages to get away, it is likely to collapse days later: the dragon’s mouth contains around 50 bacterial strains that cause an infection far more damaging than the bite itself. Within a week, the wounded usually dies of blood poisoning. The dragon knows this, and can follow an infected animal for miles, waiting for it to collapse. When it does, the feast begins.

Many researchers have speculated why the Komodo dragon is so big. After all, a lizard that weighs up to 150kg holds an abnormal size compared to its contemporary relatives (even if the average weight is 70kg). “They are endemic to islands only, so that could possibly be one reason,” says Glen Fairweather, head of reptiles at Colchester Zoo. “There is nothing there that is going to threaten them. But it is also thought that they could be a distant relative to the megafauna.” (The Australian megafauna were super-sized species that died out 40,000 to 50,000 years ago.)

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That is also the theory of Christofer J. Clemente, of Harvard University. “Originally it was thought their large size was the result of island gigantism,” he says. “However, some great research came out showing fossil Komodo bones in Australia. They show that the Komodo evolved on mainland Australia about 3.8 million years ago, at a time when Australia had lots of huge megafauna.”

“It wasn’t even the biggest lizard then,” Clemente continues. “There was a far bigger lizard called megalania prisca. However, as the climate and vegetation changed, the Komodo became extinct in Australia and on the other islands it had spread to, until the last surviving population was on those few isolated islands in Indonesia.”

Photos: Ethan Daniels, Pius Lee, Tatiana Morozova [all via Shutterstock.com].

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