Dragon With A Deadly Bite

The Komodo dragon, like its name suggests, is a ferocious animal. It is the largest lizard in the world–as an adult it may grow to a length of ten feet and weigh over 150 pounds. In addition to its menacing size, the Komodo dragon also features super-sharp teeth and claws. If the teeth and claws don’t kill its prey, blood poisoning caused by one of the 50 bacteria species in its saliva will.

The komodo dragon is a reptile endemic to Indonesia. (Photo credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/Alamy)

Natural History

The Komodo dragon is the worlds largest living lizard. Male lizards can grow up to ten feet in length and weigh around 200 pounds. Females tend to be slightly shorter (growing to a length of eight feet) and weigh around 150 pounds. These unusual lizards live in the lower dry forest and savanna habitats of four volcanic islands (Komodo, Gila Montang, Rinca, and Flores) within Indonesias Lesser Sundra Islands. The population of komodo dragons across these four islands is estimated to be between 3000 and 4000 individual animals. Komodo dragons are considered to be an endangered species due to factors including the loss of adequate habitat, poaching, and natural disasters.

Though some female Komodo dragons have been known to reproduce asexually, that is, they are able to fertilize their own eggs, most Komodo dragons reproduce by sexual means. The lizards mate between the months of May and August. Male lizards wrestle together to gain access to females. Following a victory, a male Komodo dragon mates with a female, fertilizing her eggs. In September, the female lizard lays a clutch of between 20 and 30 eggs into a nest. The female then incubates the eggs for a period of seven to nine months. Upon hatching, the young Komodo dragons have to fend for themselves, and many do not survive to adulthood.

Ambush Predator

In addition to their formidable size, Komodo dragons also have a ferocious bite. A Komodo dragons mouth is filled with 60 serrated, shark-like teeth that are able to tear chunks of flesh out of its prey when feeding. The teeth are embedded within its gums. When it begins to feed, the lizards gums begin to bleed, meaning feeding time can be a particularly gruesome sight. In addition, the Komodo dragon has a flexible skull, which lets it swallow large hunks of food at one time.

The komodo dragon’s serrated teeth pop out of its gums when it is ready to feed. (Photo credit: Anna Yu/Getty Images)

Like crocodiles, komodo dragons are ambush predators. When ready for a meal, the lizards lie in wait, and spring upon their unsuspecting prey in a violent maelstrom of super-sharp teeth and claws. Even if a prey item is somehow able to survive the initial attack, it most likely will die soon after due to blood poisoning–a komodo dragon harbors over 50 different strains of bacteria in its mouth. Komodo dragons have a keen sense of smell and have been known to track the presence and direction of a kill as far as 2.5 miles away. These reptiles detect odors like a snake. A Komodo dragon uses its long, forked tongue to gather particles from the air. Next the lizard moves its tongue against its Jacobson’s organ, a sensory receptor located in the roof of its mouth, to identify airborne molecules.

A Komodo dragon is an indiscriminate eater–it eats nearly 90 percent of each kill it makes, including hooves, bones, and skin. It will also eat its prey’s intestines, first swinging them about to remove any fecal matter before chowing down. Komodo dragons are voracious eaters. In fact, a Komodo dragon tends to eat up to 80 percent of its body weight at one feeding. When young, Komodo dragons typically eat smaller items such as insects, birds, eggs, and small mammals. As adults, Komodo dragons have been known to eat deer, smaller pigs, water buffalo, and smaller Komodo dragons. At times, humans have also become a Komodo dragon’s prey. Though uncommon, four people have been killed by Komodo dragons since 1974, and eight people have been injured by the lizards in the previous decade.

A Venomous Bite?

Recent research indicates that there may be more than just virulent bacteria that kills a Komodo dragon’s prey. In 2006, Dr. Brian Fry and a colleague published a scientific study that indicated that some lizards may share with snakes the same gene responsible for venom production. Following an unfortunate outbreak of a deadly virus in a population of Komodo dragons held at the Singapore Zoo, Fry and his colleagues were able to collect specimens to study. The scientists discovered that Komodo dragons have a set of glands that make venomlike proteins. These proteins can cause a rapid drop in blood pressure and/or prevent blood from clotting. In a paper published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Fry and his fellow researchers conclude that when a Komodo dragon bites into its prey, it adds venom to the wound, which causes the prey to bleed uncontrollably and/or lose consciousness due to a rapid drop in blood pressure.

Not all scientists are convinced by this research, however, and find any compelling evidence lacking. Further research is required to determine if Komodo dragons truly pack some venom in their already deadly bite.

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