26 May, 2013

A Wonder of Nature

One of the  New Seven Wonders of Nature, Komodo National Park is both famous for its spectacular marine life and for it’s unique population of giant lizards that roam the savannas whose appearance and aggressive behavior have led them to be called ‘Komodo dragons’.  These fascinating creatures exist nowhere else in the world other than in captivity, and are of great interest to biologists, scientists, and nature enthusiasts alike.

Though the dragons are world renowned, most people don’t know much about these peerless creatures and their bizarre behavior. The following photo blog is a small collection of interesting bits of information I have collected over the years from first-hand encounters from the park rangers who have guided me through the park over the past several years, as well as additional research, and online sources.  The dangerous nature of the wild dragons has makes them a challenging subject to study, and even the most basic ‘facts’ about the dragons seem to be disputed or considered a mystery amongst the experts.  For me the mystery only adds to my fascination with the most bizarre, grotesque, and intriguing creatures on earth.


A Living Jurassic  Park

The protected area of Komodo is made up of 26 islands, but only the largest of them receive enough rainfall to sustain the Komodo dragons and the wildlife they depend on for food.  Rinca, Gili Motang , Komodo and certain coastal areas of north and west Flores are the only places the dragons exist in the wild. Throughout these islands, the dragons roam over a wide range of habitats including the high monsoon forests, open savannas, deserted beaches, and mangrove swamps.


Stranded on a Desert Island

Komodo “dragons” are actually monitor lizards from the Varanidae family, whose ancestors roamed the earth nearly 50 Million years ago, making the Komodo dragon one of the oldest living lizards on earth.  Their ancestry is debatable. While some experts believe that the dragons made their way from Java, others think that they descended from an ancient lizard in Australia.

No matter where their origins, experts generally agree on how the dragons became isolated in their present range.  During the last glacial period, sea levels were about 85 meters lower than they are today, exposing extensive stretches of continental shelf and making it easier for the lizards to cross from island to island. As glaciers melted and sea levels rose, island hopping became too difficult due to stronger currents and wider water crossings. Since then, the islands of Komodo remain the dragon’s permanent home.


The King Kong of Komodo

Komodo dragons have thrived in the harsh climate of Indonesia’s Lesser Sunda Islands for millions of years, although amazingly, their existence was unknown to humans until about 100 years ago. In 1910, Lieutenant van Steyn van Hensbroek of the Dutch colonial administration investigated whispered rumors of a “land crocodile.”  He successfully killed a dragon and brought it to zoo director Peter Ouwens, who made the dragons notorious when he published a scientific paper about the dragons in 1912.

The discovery of this exotic creature was the driving force for an expedition to Komodo Island by W. Douglas Burden in 1926.  Burden  returned from his venture with 12 preserved specimens and 2 live dragons, which eventually died in captivity.  This story of trying to capture a wild island beast and the attempt to keep it in captivity provided the inspiration for the 1933 hit movie “King Kong.”

Today, Scientists, filmmakers and intrepid travelers alike make their way to the remote islands of Komodo to observe the dragons in their natural habitat.


Protecting  the Monsters

The Dutch colonial government realized the giant monitor lizards were magnificent and rare, so they issued plans to protect the creature. In 1980 Komodo National Park, established to aid protection efforts. The current population is estimated at 5,700 dragons, but they are still listed as vulnerable due to their extremely limited range. Strict anti-poaching laws protect the dragons and their food source, but illegal activity still takes place.

From 1989 – 1994 When the number of wild dragons was dropping due increased illegal poaching of the dragon’s food source,  like the Timor deer.  The National park  staged regular feedings for the dragons.  Although fascinating for visitors to watch, the practice was abandoned to let the dragons feed in a more natural way. In recent years, the dragon numbers have been on the rise.

Of course the establishment of the park has done a great deal to protect the dragons and the game they hunt, but the creature also owes its survival to the fact that they can’t be eaten, and their scaly skin make the most repulsive belts and handbags.


Size Matters

Komodo dragons are the largest living lizards in the world.  Their unusually large size is generally attributed to island giantism; there are no other carnivorous animals to compete with in their remote island home. Females are usually smaller than males, measuring up to 2.3  meters, while a full-grown adult male can measure 3 meters long!

The dragons are also the heaviest lizards on Earth weighing an average of 70 kilos for females and 95 kilos for males.  The largest verified wild specimen measured 3.13 meters, and weighed a whopping 166 kilos.  Since Komodo dragons can eat up to 80% of their body weight in one meal, this specimen most likely broke the weight record due to an undigested meal in his belly.


Sunbathing Beauties

Komodo dragons are cold-blooded ectotherms, meaning they are dependent on external sources to regulate their body heat.  If you visit the park in the early morning or late afternoon, you are likely to see the dragons lying in the sun to regulate their body temperature. If their bodies get too cold, the food in their stomachs rot, causing regurgitation or even death. They mustn’t overheat either, so during the hottest part of the day they will seek shade and rest on a ridge with a cool breeze. During the rainy Season and at night, when it is too cool to be active, they will sleep where they can conserve heat at the edge of savanna or in burrows.


Not- So Lazy Lizards

All of that lying around can give a false impression of the dragons as slow and lethargic, but don’t be deceived! They are saving up their energy for hunting, and when the opportunity to attack is at hand, these mighty lizards can display impressive power and athleticism.

While usually moving at a slower pace, hunting dragons are capable of running rapidly in brief sprints up to 20 kilometers per hour. Because they spend the early years of their lives in trees, dragons are also quite proficient climbers.  However, dragons over 2 meters are too heavy to climb trees at all, so escaping up a tree might be a good option, should you be unfortunate enough to find a larger dragon chasing you.

Much like a crocodile or water snake, dragons can use their long strong tails to propel them through the water.  They can swim at least 500 Meters, and even dive as deep as 4.5 meters.   However, they become sluggish in the water because the water cools their body temperature down.  Therefore they will only enter water when they know there is a good chance of being rewarded with a meal.


Dragon Sense and Sensibility

Dragons have reasonably good vision, capable of seeing as far away as 300 M, but they are better at picking up movement than discerning stationary objects, which plays an important role in hunting. Despite its visible ear holes, dragons were formerly thought to be deaf.  Dragons can hear somewhat, but often ignore sounds due to their limited range of hearing between 400 and 2000 hertz.

By far, the dragon’s most powerful sensory organ is its long, yellow, deeply forked tongue.  Dragons only have a few taste buds, so their tongues aren’t used so much for tasting, but rather to detect odors and stimuli, much like snake. The long, yellow forked tongue samples the air to analyzers recognize airborne molecules and “smell” prey.  The dragon increases its range of smell with an amplified, undulated walk, swinging its head from side to side. With the help of a favorable wind, a dragon can smell a dead or dying animal up to 11 km(7 mi) away.


Tools of Destruction

Komodo dragons are equipped with a sophisticated arsenal of killing apparatus.  As juveniles, the dragon’s claws keep them adept at climbing trees, but as the dragon matures, the claws are used primarily as powerful weapons. Their huge muscular tails are as long as their bodies, and are strong enough to knock down a large pig or deer.  Using the tail as support, dragons are able to stand on their strong bow-legged limbs, enabling them to catch prey out of reach or to wrestle other dragons.


The Kiss of Death

By far, the Komodo dragon’s deadliest weapon is its mouth. Like a shark, Komodo dragons have about 60 frequently replaced serrated teeth. Dragons have a relatively weak bite for their size, but they make up for it with strong neck muscles and by biting with a “grip and rip” method.

But the bite is just the beginning. For the longest time, scientists believed that the Komodo dragon killed its prey with a dirty mouth. Strands of rotting flesh trapped in its teeth contribute to its foul saliva, which harbors 57 strains of bacteria, 7 of which are highly septic.  Any creature suffering a bite from a dragon would stand a high chance of dying from infection.

A more recent theory evolved in 2009 when scientists have discovered that the dragons also possess complex venom glands, secreting venom that consists of over 600 toxins, a chemical arsenal rivaling that of many snakes.  Among other side effects, the toxins prevent wounds from healing and can cause an animal to hemorrhage and bleed to death. Whether it’s the vicious teeth, the bacteria or the venom, a Komodo bite is sure have serious consequences.


Boys will be Boys

Male dragons outnumber females 3 to 1, making it necessary for males to compete to win the attention of eligible female dragons. In their quest for a mate, dominant males will grapple and wrestle other potential suitors until the loser is pinned to the ground.

Once the match is won, the victor will then flick his long tongue at the female to gain information about her receptivity. He might engage in displays of courtship such as rubbing his chin on the female, licking, and hard scratches to the back. Because females are understandably antagonistic and resist initial courtship attempts with their claws and teeth, the male must fully restrain the female during coitus to avoid being hurt. Komodo dragons may be monogamous and form “pair bonds,” a behavior rare for lizards.


An Unlikely Madonna

Around September, the pregnant female will look for a nest where she can lay her clutch, preferring the ready-made nesting mounds of the Megapode bird. She will also dig several false nests to fool potential egg-hunting predators. Her annual clutch averages at about 20 large, leathery, swan-like eggs. Like humans, the baby dragons take about 9 months to mature, but after only three months the mother has abandoned the nest in search of food for herself. Thankfully for her young, the phony nests the mother has built will help prevent her from finding them again.  Should the hungry female happen to find a nest of dragon eggs in her quest for food, she will eat them… even if they are her own babies!

Although dragons make terrible mothers, the female’s  reproductive genes are amazingly adaptive. Should a female find herself in isolation, such as on a remote island or in captivity, she is capable of parthenogenesis, or a virgin birth.  Without the need for a mate, she can lay a clutch of all- male eggs, with whom she can mate and produce further clutches of both males and females to ensure the survival of the species. With this handy skill of Immaculate Conception, the female can single-handedly produce her own young, create a potential mate, and even fill her belly as she snacks on some of her babies as well!


Troubled Teens

With mom having abandoned the eggs to fend for themselves, the first days of a baby dragon’s life are it’s most perilous. In fact, about 75% of dragon eggs hatch from their eggs, and only 5% of those hatchlings survive.

Hatching is an exhausting effort for the neonates. Once they have broken through their shell dug their way out of the earthen nest, they must immediately seek shelter high up out of the reach of predators.  Life is so precarious for the young dragons that they will spend the first years of their lives camouflaged in the trees, foraging on a diverse diet of insects, small lizards, snakes, and birds. After 3-5 years the dragons become too heavy for the tree limbs, so they must risk returning to the earth in order to search for a more substantial diet on the ground.  Those dragons lucky enough to survive their troubled youth can live to be 50 years or older.


Cannibalistic Carnivores

As the dominant predators on these islands, dragons will eat almost any kind of meat they can catch, but prefer to eat carrion, or animals that are already dead. The Komodo dragon’s diet is wide-ranging, and includes other reptiles, birds, small mammals, monkeys, wild boar, goats, deer, horses, and water buffalo. No matter how hungry a dragon might get, it will never resort to eating anything other than meat. In fact the dragons have such an aversion to all vegetable matter that that they will violently shake out the stomach and intestine contents of their vegetarian prey before devouring it.

An advantageous mechanism for sustaining the large size of adults, the dragons are also cannibalistic, making dragons meat 10% of their food intake.  Feeding frenzies can be extremely precarious for young dragons because of the high potential they will be eaten along with the prey.  To avoid becoming part of the meal, the young often roll in fecal material, thereby assuming a scent that the large dragons avoid.

The giant lizard’s preference for carrion has made them a nuisance to the villagers in Komodo, who have been forced to construct strong, heavy graves to deter their pesky neighbors from raiding the tombs and digging up the bodies of the dead. Dragons occasionally attack living humans, the unlucky victims often local villagers who wander too close to the game trails, or the park rangers who let their guard down while living in the ranger stations. On only one recorded occasion was a tourist killed by a dragon.  Many years ago, a Swiss tourist had strayed from the safety of the group and the protection of his guide. He was never seen again, but weeks later the rangers found his camera and some of his hair in a pile of dragon excrement. Since that time it has become a park regulation that visitors  travel with a ranger at all times.


Hunger Games

The hunting strategy of the Komodo relies on camouflage, patience, stealth, and power. Masters of disguise, mature dragons will hide in the long grass along game trails, waiting determinedly for hours for any sizable prey to walk by. When a target is spotted, the dragon springs, using its powerful legs and tail to launch himself towards his victim.

If the prey is smaller, the dragon will go strait for the neck to take it down.  For larger prey, the dragon will aim for the feet, attempting to knock the hapless creature off balance or cripple it by severing the tendons in its legs. If the unfortunate animal falls, the Komodo will continue to rip it apart with its sharp claws.  The victim quickly bleeds to death and the dragon begins to feed.

However, most initial attempts at bringing down an animal are unsuccessful, but the dragons might still get their meal if they managed to bite their target. As the septic bacteria or toxic venom from the dragon’s bite takes effect, the initial attacker as well as any other dragons who have picked up the scent of the dying animal will follow the creature for miles in a leisurely fashion, waiting for it to die.

Dragons even identify heavily pregnant mammals by smell and may attempt to induce a miscarriage.  They have even been known to snatch newborn animals from between the legs of the mother during birth.


Terrible Table Manners

Dragons are usually solitary creatures, but a kill is shared by many dragons, making meal times a major social activity for the giant lizards. There is a strict pecking order when it comes to eating, with the largest male asserting his dominance and digging in first, while the rest of the dragons join the feast in a determined size hierarchy. The smaller males must show their submission by use of body language and rumbling hisses, lest they become food for the larger dragons. Dragons of equal size may resort to wrestling, where the losers usually retreat, but have been known to be killed and eaten by the victors.

The Komodo dragon’s loosely articulated jaws, flexible skull, and expandable stomach allow an adult to consume up to 80 % of his body weight in a single meal.  A 42kg dragon was once seen eating entire 30kg boar in 17 minutes! To eat large prey like a water buffalo, dragons will hold down the carcass with its forelegs, tear large chunks of flesh and gulp them down. For smaller prey, such as a goat, the dragon can swallow prey whole.


Hard to Swallow

Consuming such an ambitious meal is a long process.Since it can take up to 20 minutes to ingest a goat, the dragon must prevent himself from suffocating by breathing through a small tube under his tongue. Copious amounts of saliva help to lubricate the food, but the dragon may attempt to further speed up the swallowing process by ramming the carcass against a tree in an attempt to force the animal down its throat.  This can be done so forcefully that tree is knocked down!

Komodo dragons are extremely efficient eaters, forsaking only 12 % of their kill.  Bones, hooves, horns and swaths of hide are greedily swallowed whole, even though the dragon can’t digest them.  Long after a meal, the dragon heaves and coughs up a “gastric pellet,” a disgusting and smelly ball of undigested animal parts covered in malodorous mucus.   Like humans, dragons don’t like the smell of their own bodily secretions, and after producing the putrid ball, will promptly rub their faces in the sand to get rid of the foul smell.

Because of their slow metabolism, Komodos usually eat only once a month, and can survive on as little as 12 meals a year.Dragons can even throw up the their stomach contents if they feel threatened, instantly reducing their weight in order to flee.


Trekking the Seas to the Savanna

These cannibalistic creatures with deadly drool and a twisted family life make for fascinating study.  However there’s nothing like donning your trekking shoes and heading out through the spectacular, rugged savanna landscape for a chance to spot these prehistoric creatures in their wild habitat.  Both the Ombak Putih and the Katharina make several trips to these unique islands throughout the year, so be sure to check out Sea Trek’s website for the next departure to Komodo National Park.   www.seatrekbali.com


We’ll be waiting for you…

Browse more photos of Komodo National Park



*** special thanks to:

The Park Rangers of Loh Liang in Komodo and Loh Buaya in Rinca.  Thanks for your all of your fascinating stories and fabulous treks.

Arnaz Metha Erdmann, author of “A Natural History Guide to Komodo National Park”

http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2009/05/18/venomous-komodo-dragons-kill-prey-with-wound-and-poison-tact/   Discovery Magazine’s articleon Dragon Venom

http://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/reptilesamphibians/facts/factsheets/komododragon.cfm – the Smithsnian Zoo for their insightful info on captive dragons


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