Komodo dragon

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Varanus komodoensis

SUBFAMILY

Varanines

TAXONOMY

Varanus komodoensis Ouwens, 1912, Komodo, Indonesia. OTHER COMMON NAMES

English: Komodo monitor, ora; French: Dragon des Komodos, Varan de Komodo; German: Komodo-Waran; Spanish: Varano de Komodo.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

Indonesian Komodo dragons, which attain lengths of 9.9 ft (3 m) and weights of 331 lb (150 kg), are the largest living lizard.

DISTRIBUTION

Found only on several Indonesian islands in the Lesser Sunda Island chain, Flores, Rinca, and Komodo.

HABITAT

Komodo dragons are found from sea level up to 2,625 ft (800 m), mainly in tropical dry and moist deciduous monsoon forest, savanna, and mangrove forest.

BEHAVIOR

Hatchling Komodo dragons are arboreal. Juveniles and subadults are both arboreal and terrestrial. Adult individuals are strictly terrestrial; their large body size hinders climbing trees. Komodo dragons have been occasionally observed swimming for short distances, close to mangrove forest.

FEEDING ECOLOGY AND DIET

Komodo dragons are versatile predators, and they survived to the present by switching their diet to smaller prey such as large reptiles, mammals, and birds. Only relatively recently, humans introduced the deer and wild pigs that constitute the staple diet of large Komodo dragons today. Komodo monitors have secondarily evolved to become ambush predators, lying in wait along trails for large prey such as small deer or wild pigs. When foraging for smaller prey such as mammals and snakes, Komodo dragons forage widely like other monitors. Juvenile Komodos are active, widely foraging predators. The diet includes insects, small to large vertebrates (lizards, snakes, rodents, monkeys, wild boars, deer, and water buffalo), bird and sea turtle eggs, as well as carrion. Deer make up about 50% of the adult diet. Adults also prey upon the young of their own species. Juvenile Komodos are highly arboreal, which may protect them from being eaten by their larger, less agile brethren. These monitors can detect airborne volatile oils released by decomposition of carcasses, which leads lizards on long feeding excursions.

After following Komodos in the field using radiotelemetry for over a year, Auffenberg summed up their ambush thus: "when these animals decide to attack, nothing can stop them." He followed one lizard for 81 days, during which time it made only two verified successful kills. A 110-lb (50-kg) female consumed a 683-lb (310-kg) boar in just 17 minutes. Auffenberg himself was attacked and treed by a "maverick" Komodo dragon.

REPRODUCTIVE BIOLOGY

In captivity, age of first reproduction is reached at about eight or nine years (no data are available for wild specimens). Courtship and mating occur from May to August. Adult males of similar size engage in ritual combats to gain access to females. Using their tails for support, they wrestle in an upright position, grabbing each other with their forelegs, and try to knock down their opponent. In courtship, a male flicks its tongue on the female's snout and then over her body until he reaches her cloaca. He then presses his snout at the base of her tail, scratches her body with his claws, and eventually crawls on her back.

Females deposit eggs in September in burrows located on hill slopes or in nests of megapode birds. These nests consist of heaps of twigs mixed with earth, up to 5 ft (1.5 m) high and 16.4 ft (5 m) in diameter. A hole is dug into the nest and used to lay eggs. Females sometimes lie on the nest for several months, probably guarding their eggs from predators. Eggs hatch in March-April. In captivity, incubation period averages about 220 days. Parental care has not been observed in Ko-modo dragons. Average clutch size is 18 eggs. The largest clutch recorded is 36 eggs.

Male Komodo dragons tend to grow bulkier and bigger than females. No obvious morphological differences between sexes exist, except for a specific area of precloacal scales. On Komodo island, sex ratio was estimated at three males per female. Hatchlings gain weight rapidly, and after about five years they may weigh 55 lb (25 kg) and have a total length of over 6.6 ft (2 m). Growth continues slowly throughout life. Males reach a larger size than females. Captive records and field observations suggest a longevity of over 30 years.

CONSERVATION STATUS

The IUCN lists the Komodo dragon as Vulnerable due to its small geographic range, small population size, and loss of habitat due to human encroachment. Populations of these spectacular creatures have now been reduced to only a few thousand lizards on a handful of islands. Komodo dragons have recently been successfully bred in captivity.

SIGNIFICANCE TO HUMANS

Blood plasma of Komodo dragons contains powerful antibacterial substances that could be developed as new useful antibiotics in the ongoing worldwide battle against the evolution of antibiotic-resistant microbes. These giant lizards are often the centerpiece of reptile exhibits at zoos. ♦

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