Cool Critter: Komodo Dragon
Meet the Komodo Dragon, a kinda cute—in a reptilian sort of way—humongous lizard.* This 10-foot-long, 300-plus pound lizard can reportedly take down a water buffalo with its bite.
Yup, you read that correctly. And yup, a water buffalo is as big as you think it is (up to 2,600 pounds). How then can an overgrown lizard kill a friggin’ water buffalo?
Not with a nibble, that’s for sure. Scientists recently discovered the secret behind the Komodo Dragon’s effective bite: serrated teeth and venomous saliva. The venom, which flows into the deep lacerations left by the teeth, contains toxins that widen the victim’s blood vessels and prolong bleeding. The wide blood vessels cause a severe drop in blood pressure that induces shock, leaving the victim immobilized.
Using this nifty little trick, Komodo Dragons feast on everything, including smaller dragons, pigs, goats, deer—and people.** Although they can run at a speed of 12.4 mph for brief spurts—that’s a sub-five minute mile—dragons are ambush predators, typically waiting to take their victims by surprise. Sometimes they’ll use their massive tails, which are the same length as their bodies, to knock down large prey. Other times, they’ll take the easy route by scrounging up carrion, including human “carrion.” (In other words, they’re grave robbers.) Komodos have also been known to “cause” carrion by startling a pregnant deer into having a miscarriage, then eating the remains of the fetus.
Dragons swallow some prey whole—using their flexible skulls, loosely articulated jaws and uber-expandable stomachs—and eviscerate others. A goat, for instance, is totally swallowable. The process takes about 20 minutes—less if the dragon rams the carcass against a tree to force the immobilized goat down its throat.
Whether they swallow the animal whole or eviscerate it, Komodo Dragons eat everything, including fur, hooves, and horns. They do, however, draw the line at poop. They will swing an animal’s intestine vigorously to remove any fecal matter, then gobble up the now-empty intestine. After a Komodo Dragon has digested its meal—which may be up to 80% of its body weight—it will regurgitate a gastric pellet (a ball of mucus, teeth, horns, fur and anything else they can’t digest).
Obviously, Komodo Dragons are the dominant predator in their ecosystem, but they are still listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List. Scientists estimate that only 2,500 Komodo Dragons remain in the wild and they all live in Indonesia’s 700-square-mile Komodo National Park.
Of those 2,500 dragons, only 350 or so are breeding females. For most species such a low number of breeding females would spell disaster. Komodo Dragons, however, are blessed with the gift of parthenogenesis—male-less reproduction. Not all Komodo Dragons reproduce asexually, but the females who do only produce viable male offspring. (Scientists suspect that the female could then mate with her male offspring to create a new population…if need be.)
While they’re reproductively a-okay, Komodos still face the typical threats of a vulnerable species. They risk losing their habitat to earthquakes, volcanic activity, wildfire and tourism. On top of that, poachers often target Komodos’ favorite prey species and even Komodos themselves. Komodos can often get away, but first, they puke to reduce their weight so they can flee faster.
*Thankfully, the Komodo Dragon is the world’s largest living lizard.
** Despite being able to eat everything, Komodo Dragons are funny drinkers. They don’t have a diaphragm so they can’t suck up water and their tongue is too long, skinny and forked to effectively lap up water. Instead, it gets a mouthful of water then tilts its head back to allow the water to run down its throat.