The Komodo dragon: facts and myths

Even though Komodo dragons are not actually dragons like the mythical creatures from Game of Thrones, genetic analysis suggests their evolution has some very unique traits.
Interesting Engineering
Komodo Dragon head
Komodo Dragon

Gaschwald / iStock 

Komodo dragons are the largest lizards on Earth. The largest adults measure up to 350 pounds and can grow as long as 10 feet. These lizards have an incredible sense of smell, tracking their prey from miles away. While the power of their bite is considerably weak compared to animals of similar size, like the Australian Saltwater croc, these dragons release venom which lowers blood pressure and contains anticoagulants – ensuring that their prey continues to bleed and weaken after a single bite, eventually going into shock or bleeding to death.  

Komodo dragons are not dragons – certainly not the mythical creatures you see in Game of Thrones. But genetic analysis has suggested pathways for the evolution of some of their unique traits. For example, given their enormous size, these dragons can run as much as 13 miles/hour on a short bust and have also developed resistance to the anticoagulant effects of their own bites. In fact, the Komodo dragon genome is an important resource for understanding the biology of other monitor lizards and reptiles.

Where do Komodo dragons live?

You guessed it – they live on Komodo Island, one of the seventeen thousand-plus islands in Indonesia. You can also find them on a few other islands in the Nusa Tenggara (Lesser Sunda) group, such as Padar, Rintia, and Flores. Tourists often visit Indonesia to see these beasts on a guided tour of the Komodo National Park.

The Komodo dragon: facts and myths
Komodo Island

What does the Komodo dragon eat?

Komodo dragons consume almost every form of meat, depending on their age. They scavenge for dead animals or stalk prey of different sizes, from tiny mice to massive water buffalo. Young dragons consume insects, little lizards, birds, and snakes but switch to larger prey, like rodents, monkeys, goats, wild boars, and deer, once they reach the age of about five. These reptiles are cannibalistic tertiary predators at the apex of their food chain.

Komodo dragons mostly fail in their attempts to bring down prey outright, but once they bite their target, the venom in their saliva quickly kills the animal. The Komodo can then utilize its keen sense of smell to find the carcass after the animal dies, which can take up to four days. And a kill is frequently split among many Komodo dragons.

How big is the Komodo dragon?

The Komodo dragon is the world's biggest living lizard, with an average weight of around 154 pounds, but the most significant confirmed specimen measured 10.3 feet in length and weighed 366 pounds. Males often have more prominent, heavier bodies than females.

What happens when a Komodo dragon bites a human being?

The Komodo dragon's 60-pointed, serrated teeth give off a frightening vibe. In contrast to other creatures, the Komodo dragon's bite is quite weak. Compared to an Australian saltwater crocodile of the same size, which can produce a bite force of 252 Newtons. Komodo dragons, like other monitor lizard species, tend to have a bite force of around 500 to 600 PSI or 39 Newtons. Technically, the Komodo dragon's bite shouldn't be sufficient to cause significant harm to either humans or animals. Instead, the dragons use a slash and pull-back technique to injure their prey. A Komodo dragon's bite is fatal due to its potent venom, which can kill a large animal in as little as a few hours.

Most Popular
The Komodo dragon: facts and myths
Komodo dragon running

Can a Komodo dragon kill a human?

Most lizards are non-venomous and harmless, but the Komodo is not one of them. The Komodo is the biggest and deadliest lizard on Earth. The Komodo dragon can hunt and kill large creatures, and they are also capable of hunting and killing people. The vicious bite of these enormous lizards delivers venom, putting the victim in a state of shock as the venom accelerates blood loss, lowers blood pressure, triggers profuse bleeding, and hinders wound healing. These occurrences render victims, including humans, helpless and unable to defend themselves.

Komodo dragons are aggressive and may track humans even when unprovoked. Still, reports of human attacks are a rarity. The Komodo National Park recorded 24 reported attacks between 1974 and 2012, both in the wild and in captivity. Sadly, five of these attacks resulted in death. Indonesian villages have also reported deep wound bites and fatalities from Komodo dragons.

Seven Komodo dragon facts

The Komodo dragon: facts and myths
Komodo Dragons on Komodo Island

1. Komodo Dragons can bring down large prey:

Massive creatures like Komodo dragons may slay larger animals like water buffalo, deer, and wild boar. Fossil evidence suggests that when now-extinct dwarf elephants frequented the Indonesian islands during the Pleistocene, dragons may have taken them down. These reptiles ambush their prey and inject fatal poisons into their systems. They also possess the ability to blend in with the dull surroundings of their native islands and can patiently wait for an unwary animal to pass before charging in and biting it.

2. A Komodo can eat a large proportion of its own body weight in one sitting:

A Komodo dragon's hunger is in proportion to its size. These lizards may consume up to 80% of their weight in food at one time. How? Like other lizards, a Komodo dragon sunbathes after eating because of its large meals and delayed digestion. The heat keeps its digestive system operating, and it regurgitates a gastric pellet after food has been digested. Like owl pellets, a gastric pellet is made up of undigestible parts of the prey, such as horns, fur, and teeth. Komodo dragons may subsist on as little as one meal each month because of their relatively sluggish metabolism and ability to consume so much food at once.

3. Komodo dragons can reproduce asexually:

Depending on environmental conditions, Komodo dragon females can procreate asexually through a process known as parthenogenesis. Parthenogenesis occurs when the DNA fertilizes an egg from another egg rather than the sperm. It has been observed in around 70 vertebrate species, primarily fish and lizards. With parthenogenesis, female Komodo dragons can produce a healthy clutch of eggs without males, although in the case of the Komodo, all of the offspring produced this way will be male. 

4. Komodo dragons are venomous:

For a long time, it was thought that a Komodo dragon's bite was lethal because of bacteria in its mouth; however, these giant lizards are actually incredibly venomous. The venom of a Komodo dragon seeps into the deep wounds of its victims, as opposed to snake venom, which is injected into a victim through its razor-sharp teeth. The animal may escape the dragon's grasp, yet the lethal poison remains, eventually killing the prey. With its sharp nose, the Komodo dragon can follow its prey as it weakens, either finishing it off or waiting until it is dead – Komodo dragons are carrion eaters and do not mind if their meal is already dead.

5. Komodo dragons have callous "bony" skin:

The Komodo dragon's skin is covered in tens of thousands of tiny bones. Osteoderms, the medical term for these bone deposits, are absent at birth. Instead, the deposits form throughout a Komodo dragon's life, much like a tree's rings. You wouldn't think the enormous lizards would require this kind of built-in suit of armor for protection, given that they are tertiary predators. However, Komodo dragons, including members of their species, will attack and kill anything that gets in their way, and their bony chain mail helps keep them safe from one another during fights over food and mates.

6. Komodo dragons are nimble:

Komodo dragons, and other monitor lizards, are an exception to the rule that reptiles have poor aerobic capacity. A study published in the National Library of Medicine revealed that Komodo dragons have developed an aerobic capacity and cardiovascular physiology more like that of a mammal, which is advantageous when hunting prey. The study demonstrated that the mitochondria in the Komodo dragon’s cells have undergone a number of adaptations over time. Similar to the digestive tract, mitochondria ingest nutrients and produce cellular energy. This is of particular importance for muscle cells, which Komodo dragons have in abundance. The researchers found evidence of positive selection for elements of mitochondrial function with roles in glucose and lipid metabolism, energy transfer, contractile function, muscle mitochondrial biogenesis, and oxidative capacity. This also helps explains the species' great spurts of endurance and speed. A Komodo dragon is capable of a sprinting speed of around 13 mph.7.

7. Komodo dragons eat dead bodies:

For food, Komodo dragons don't always go on the hunt. They consume a lot of carrion instead. A corpse may be located by their noses up to four miles. Unfortunately for the humans who live alongside the dragons, this can pose a danger to those who have just been buried. The people of Komodo no longer put their deceased in sandy ground; instead, they only inter them in clay soil due to grave robbery. They frequently place a heap of pebbles on the grave for extra security.