Why Do Komodo Dragons Dig Up Human Graves, and How Do They Know Where They Are Located?

Written by Samuel Christopher
Updated: October 25, 2023
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Quick Answer:

  • The Komodo dragon’s powerful sense of smell leads it to a dead animal carcass, but it can also smell dead bodies already buried.
  • Komodo dragons will take advantage of suitable scavenging opportunities, including feasting on a carcass, even if it’s a human body.

Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis) are the world’s largest lizard. These animals are an apex predator in their natural range. At full length, these massive lizards can grow to be mind-blowing nine feet long from nose to tail.

Komodo dragons exist only on a few Indonesian islands. Even though these lizards are active hunters, they are also opportunistic scavengers. This aspect of their behavior has led them to be observed digging up human graves on occasion. They do this to chow on the bodies decomposing within. Macabre, indeed, but not out of line for a purely carnivorous animal.

A Komodo dragon’s ability to figure out where these graves are and hone in on them with precision is based on some unique aspects of their physiology. Here is an overview of this fascinating phenomenon.

The Komodo Dragon’s Sense of Smell

The reason that Komodo dragons are able to locate where graves are in the first place is due to their incredibly powerful sense of smell.

This powerful sense usually sends them in the direction of a dead animal carcass. But their sense of smell is so powerful that they can smell dead bodies already buried.

Komodo dragon’s keen sense of smell can oftentimes carry them for miles for a suitable meal. Some dragons can travel over six miles to find carrion that they have smelled from far away.

Human graves aren’t the only thing that Komodo dragons will excavate on their quest to fill their stomach. They have also been observed digging up bird egg nests, as well as invading the burrows of subterranean mammals. They also occasionally attack living humans! Such attacks are quite rare, though.

Komodo Dragon Charging

A Komodo dragon uses its tongue to sense the air.


The Jacobson’s Organ

Like most lizards, Komodo dragons use their tongues to direct their sense of smell. This is why lizards are constantly flicking their tongues – they’re actually “tasting” the smells in the air. However, this sense of taste isn’t exactly akin to the one experienced by humans.

A lizard’s ability to do this is dependent on a part of its body known as the Jacobsen’s Organ. This gland on the roof of its mouth allows it to use its tongue to smell. This unique organ acts as a connector between its tongue and its sense of smell.

Opportunists at Heart

Komodo dragons are powerful hunters capable of running quite fast at short distances. However, ultimately, they prefer to bide their time. This means either waiting and striking when the time is right or finding suitable scavenging opportunities. Sometimes, this means human burials.

The typical Komodo dragon hunting strategy is to lie in, wait for suitable prey to pass by, and then rapidly lunge out and strike their target. This ability is enhanced by the Komodo dragon’s aforementioned powerful sense of smell. It’s also aided by its respectable vision, which allows it to see things approximately 985 feet away.

Sometimes, their hunting behavior expresses itself in other interesting ways. There have been reports of Komodo dragons striking prey in an ambush and then following the wounded animal for several days. The dragon was slowly waiting for it to die. These gigantic lizards will feast on just about anything, not just human corpses. Pretty much anything in their native range is on the menu, should the Komodo find a way to nab it.

Interestingly, Komodo dragons are equipped with a unique metabolism. This type of metabolism allows them to survive for very long periods in between meals. There are reports of adult Komodo dragons surviving on just 12 successful hunts per year.

Komodo dragon

Komodo dragons prefer to ambush their prey.

©Bodlina / Creative Commons

Efforts at Deterring Dragons

This scavenging phenomenon has prompted the residents of Indonesia to adopt a set of practices to try and deter Komodo dragons from digging up their recently deceased. Some tactics employed include deliberately burying people in areas with firmer and harder soil. Other folks make piles of rocks on top of their graves. This serves as a memento and a ward for potentially hungry Komodo dragons.

In the event that a Komodo dragon does successfully dig up a grave, the living people are given a set of options: The first option is acquiescing and letting the dragon have its fill. Or, they can try to defend the gravesite in some manner. Due to the Komodo dragon’s immense size, the latter option is quite dangerous.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © GUDKOV ANDREY/Shutterstock.com

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