Komodo Dragon Classification and Evolution
The Komodo Dragon is a large species of lizard that is only found on a handful of islands in the Indonesian archipelago. Not known to the world until the First World War, the Komodo Dragon is actually a species of Monitor Lizard that has been evolving in island isolation for millions years, which has led to it becoming very large indeed. The Komodo Dragon is not only the largest lizard in the world, but it also one of the most aggressive and is so powerful that it is able to take prey many times it's own size. However, Komodo Dragons are also in severe danger in their natural environments as hunting and habitat loss, along with a shortage of prey, has led to population declines on the few islands where they are found in the Komodo National Park, meaning that they are now listed on the IUCN's Red List and therefore have some legal protection.
Komodo Dragon Anatomy and Appearance
The Komodo Dragon is an enormous reptile that can grow up to three meters long and weigh 150kg. They are incredibly strong and powerful with long, thick bodies, short, muscular legs and an almighty tail that is used for both fighting and for propping the animal up when it is standing on it's hind legs. The Komodo Dragon has long and sharp, curved claws that are often used for digging and it's greyish brown skin is covered in small scales and folds around the neck. Komodo Dragons have relatively small heads compared to their large body size and wide, powerful jaws that conceal a mouth that is filled with deadly bacteria. Although the Komodo Dragon has good eyesight, the majority of it's surroundings are sensed to smell which the Komodo Dragon does with it's long and deeply forked tough. By flicking it's tongue out of it's mouth, the Komodo Dragon is able to "taste" scent particles in the air to locate both live and dead prey up to 8km away.
Komodo Dragon Distribution and Habitat
Although the Komodo Dragon would have once been widespread across many Indonesian islands, they are today confined to just five which all lie in the Komodo National Park. The islands of Komodo, Rintja, Gillimontang, Padar and the western tip of Flores are the last remaining homes for these enormous animals that are most commonly found in open woodlands along with dry savannah and on scrubby hillsides, and can also be found inhabiting dried-up river beds. It is thought that Komodo Dragons evolved to be so big on these islands due to the presence of a number of large mammalian species that have since gone extinct. Today however, they are becoming more threatened in their natural environments with the loss of their habitats to deforestation for timber has pushed the last remaining populations into smaller and more isolated regions.
Komodo Dragon Behaviour and Lifestyle
The Komodo Dragon is a solitary and powerful predator that roams a territory which is dependent on the individual's size, with the average adult covering a distance of around 2km every day. They are also known to be excellent swimmers, travelling from one island to another over a relatively long distance. Although they are solitary animals, a number of Komodo Dragons will often gather around a single kill with smaller individuals normally having to give way to the larger ones. In order to catch such large animals, Komodo Dragons can sit for hours hidden in the vegetation and are well camouflaged by their grey-brown skin as they sit waiting for a prey animal to pass by. The Komodo Dragon then ambushes it's victim with incredible speed and force. Although the majority of initial attacks are successful, if the animal somehow manages to escape then the bacteria transferred from the Komodo Dragon's mouth in the bite-would, causes the flesh to become septic and kills the prey within 24 hours.
Komodo Dragon Reproduction and Life Cycles
Besides when feeding on a large carcass, Komodo Dragons can also be seen in the company of one another during the breeding season when, in September, nearby males fight one another by standing on their hind legs and propped up by their tails, try to win the right to breed with the local females. After mating, the female Komodo Dragon lays up to 25 leathery eggs in a hole that she digs into the soft sand. The young hatch after an incubation period that lasts for between 8 and 9 months and are boldly marked with cream bands (which they lose as they get older), and are completely independent from when they leave their shell. However, until they grow to a larger size, young Komodo Dragons will venture up into the trees where they will spend most of their time until they are big enough to look after themselves on the ground. Komodo Dragons tend to live for an average of 30 years in the wild.
Komodo Dragon Diet and Prey
The Komodo Dragon is a carnivorous animal that only hunts and kills large animals in order to survive in it's natural surroundings. Adult Komodo Dragons are able to kill prey much larger than themselves as even if they are not successful at killing it on ambush, they will then follow it for miles until it eventually dies of the blood-poisoning caused by the deadly bacteria in the Komodo Dragon's mouth. Large mammals make up the bulk of the Komodo Dragon's diet including Pigs, Goats, Deer and even Horses and Water Buffalo (all of which have been introduced to the islands by people). Young Komodo Dragons however, prey on smaller animals in the trees such as Snakes, Lizards and Birds. The teeth of the Komodo Dragon are sharp and serrated but they mean that this animal cannot chew. Instead they tear bits off the carcass and throw it backwards into their mouths, able to swallow it whole aided by their flexible neck muscles.
Komodo Dragon Predators and Threats
Due to the fact that the Komodo Dragon is the most dominant predator in it's environment, mature adults have no natural predators in their native habitats. The smaller and more vulnerable young however, seem to have adapted to spending their initial days in the trees to avoid being eaten by larger Komodo Dragons. Since the arrival of people on these islands though, things have changed dramatically with Humans having hunted the Komodo Dragons and encroaching on their native habitats with their growing settlements and forest clearance for both timber and agriculture. Komodo Dragons are also threatened by volcanic activity on these geologically active islands which can cause declines in their prey species, in turn affecting the local Komodo Dragon populations.
Komodo Dragon Interesting Facts and Features
The Komodo Dragon is known to have fifty different types of toxic bacteria in their saliva that thrive on traces of flesh, causing bite-wounds to become quickly infected. Recent research however, indicates that the real reason for such a high success rate in poisoning it's prey could be down to the fact that the Komodo Dragon may have a venom gland in it's mouth. Although Komodo Dragons have thrived in this part of the Indonesian archipelago for millions of years, they were not known to the world until around a century ago when reports came in from a pilot that swam to Komodo Island after his plane went down. The immense size of the Komodo Dragon is thought to come from the fact that they would have once hunted large mammals that would have then existed in Indonesia, including a species of Pygmy Elephant which is thought to have now been extinct for thousands of years. This means that the main prey of the Komodo Dragon today, has all been introduced to the islands by Human settlers.
Komodo Dragon Relationship with Humans
Since their discovery on the islands in the Komodo National Park around 100 years ago, Komodo Dragons have both fascinated and utterly terrified people as we learn more and more about them. Habitat loss on the islands has not only meant that Komodo Dragons are being pushed into increasingly isolated regions, but they are also being brought into closer contact with Human activity and are known to kill livestock on occasion. Despite their seemingly slow and docile nature, Komodo Dragons can run at speeds of up to 11mph in short bursts and are actually one of the world's known "man-eaters". People have not only been ambushed, bitten and then tracked by Komodo Dragons in the wild but they have also been known to attack Humans when they are kept in captive environments and either escape or are allowed to get too close.
Komodo Dragon Conservation Status and Life Today
Today, the Komodo Dragon is listed by the IUCN as a species that is Vulnerable in it's natural environment and therefore potentially faces extinction in the near future. Although once widespread on numerous Indonesian islands that they are now confined to just a few with between 3,000 and 5,000 individuals thought to be left roaming the rich, volcanic forests. Increasing interest in them from the tourist industry though has meant that local people have more reason to try and protect them and the handful of habitats where they still survive.