Komodo Dragons (Varanus komodoensis)

Due to a crazy week that involves snow, a visiting lecturer, final thesis corrections and me being sick, I invited a friend of mine to do a guest post. Enjoy!

Komodo dragons are probably the closest thing we will ever get to real dragons on Earth. However, don’t allow everything you know about dragons to fool you into thinking these guys are anywhere near as pathetic as their mythological cousins. You read that right, ladies and gentlemen – these dragons are the stuff of nightmares, or at the very least, something straight out of a DnD Monster Manual. These next paragraphs will show you just how terrifying these nightmare-fuel-in-the-form-of-my-mother’s-purse can be.

Komodo dragons can reach up to 3 meters long and tend to weigh around 70 kilograms. They are the largest lizard on earth, yet are only found on a small chain of Indonesian islands, presumably sealed away by the gods before they could take over the earth. There are two pervading theories as to why they are so large: 1) Island gigantism – because there are no other large animals on the island to compete with them, they have been capable of growing as large as their food source (everything, more on this later) has allowed them. The other theory 2) Relict population – they are the remaining descendants of a larger population of (essentially) super lizards that once roamed the earth, known as varanid lizards.

Komodo dragons aren’t only fearsome in size, they are also among the smartest of animals. They belong to a group known as monitor lizards, who have, within the past 10 years, been the subject of multiple psychological tests. Monitor lizards have been shown to exhibit exceptional intelligence, rivaling even that of man’s best friend. Most of these tests have been on some of the smaller monitors, such as iguanas, but some scientists have a death wish, and have managed to conduct a few of these tests on the fearsome Komodo. However, before any of this can even occur, these dragons have to learn not to eat their new scientist buddies. To do this, researchers cleverly removed the dragon’s hunger response in all situations except for “feeding time” (which, I imagine, is a bunch of scientists barricaded in a room, huddled and cowering to the sounds of screaming and carnage). They manage this by pairing a large ball with feeding time (in this case, a large white ball on a stick). When the dragon can see the ball, it knows that it can eat whatever it pleases. As soon as the ball is gone, the Komodo dragon’s thoughts return to its day to day activity, like the torment of human children and kicking puppies (probably). This kind of learning actually takes quite a bit of mental capacity to master, let alone learn at all. It’s a neat trick that allows the researchers to study these dragons without getting their limbs ripped off. But in all seriousness, this is an important step for people who want to interact with Komodo dragons.

The fearsome Komodo dragon.

The fearsome Komodo dragon.

Now we’ve briefly gone over the formidable mind of the Komodo, terrifying in and of itself, we will now move to its impressive biological arsenal (clench what you need to).

Naturally, Komodos are the top predators in their ecosystems. They will eat literally anything, from invertebrates, birds, and mammals. This includes some larger mammals, like deer, which is actually a regular meal for them. Also, due to their flexible skulls and articulated jaws, they can swallow most prey whole. No biggie. To help with sliding entire goats down their throats, Komodos produce a large quantity of saliva to help lubricate their esophagus. Oh, I almost forgot, their saliva is blood red. Komodo dragon’s teeth are actually embedded in their gums, so any kind of strain on their teeth (say, from eating, or licking their lips, or anything really) causes their teeth to cut their gums and bleed. This makes their saliva red (and terrifying), but also a breeding ground for bacteria (more on this later). So we now have a Komodo dragon with a goat halfway down its throat while it oozes red saliva from its mouth. Swallowing said goat can take anywhere from 15-20 minutes. However, Komodos are busy animals, so to speed this process up, they will ram their mouth (and the protruding goat) into trees, rocks or anything else solid enough to withstand the impact (Chuck Norris does wonders for their digestion). Did I also mention that because of its slow digestion, a Komodo dragon can easily survive off 12 meals a year? This allows them to minimize time spent on inane bodily activities, and maximize time spent terrorizing our imagination.

Now, if they cannot simply swallow their prey whole, Komodo dragons will simply bite their prey and wait for a few minutes while their prey dies of pure terror. The mouth of the Komodo (filled with blood, if you remember) is home to some of the worst bacteria known to man. Researchers (with I can only assume one arm) took a sample of the bacteria located within their mouths. Where normal cultures take about 3 days to proliferate, these groups cultured in about 8 hours. It is still a mystery as to why these demons aren’t affected by the plethora of bacteria (approximately 57 different strains), but my theory is that they made a pact with the devil. As if having a CDC outbreak in each of their mouths isn’t bad enough, Komodo dragons also have venom glands. Yup. Komodos have a pair of venom glands that create anticoagulant proteins. This causes you to bleed out faster, and also allows them to bathe in your blood, before deciding to finally eat you.

On top of these deadly biological weapons, the Komodo dragon also have a veritable rock solid defense. While the skin of the Komodo dragon is tough and leathery, it gets its strength from tiny bones embedded throughout its skin. I picture these bones as trophies for each kill, which then adds to their armor, at once protecting itself and intimidating its opponents. These bones, known as osteoderms, are spread throughout the Komodo’s skin, giving the dragon a natural chain mail coating over its entire body. Once it learns how to use medieval weaponry, I fear we will all be doomed.

The harbinger of our doom.

The harbinger of our doom.

So let’s recap. 10 foot lizard-dragon hybrid who’s bite will kill you 10 times over, can swallow most teenagers in a single mouthful, wears its own homemade battle armor, and it’s about as intelligent as the raptors from Jurassic Park? These creatures know not what fear is, except as a gleam in the eyes of anything unfortunate enough to cross its path.

Cover Image source: http://www.bagheera.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/komodo_2011.jpg