Each Wednesday, One Earth’s “Species of the Week” series highlights a relatively unknown and fascinating species to showcase the beauty, diversity, and remarkable characteristics of our shared planet Earth.
From medieval Europe to ancient China, the dragon is one of the most prevalent myths across the world. However, for the Indigenous people of the Indonesian islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores, and Gili Motang, the ora, buaya darat or “land crocodile” is a reality. Growing up to 10 feet in length and weighing up to 300 pounds, Komodo dragons are the largest lizards on Earth. In 1926 they were coined the “Prehistoric Monster” after William Douglas Burden led a highly publicized expedition to Komodo island. Their massive size and the adventure to find them inspired one of the most famous movies of all times, King Kong (1933).
Up until the last century, with minimum human contact, Komodo dragons thrived for millions of years on the islands at the top of the food chain. Although they don't breathe fire like the dragons of lore, a single bite can be deadly. It was previously thought that Komodo dragons’ mouths were so filled with bacteria that it ultimately led to the death of its prey. In 2009, that was dispelled and the discovery of venom glands were made. These toxins lower blood pressure, prevent clotting, and induce shock as the dragons bite down with their serrated teeth and pull with their powerful neck muscles. Whether it be deer, pigs, or even a water buffalo, Komodo dragons camouflage themselves and ambush their prey. They can sprint as fast as 12 mph, dive up to 15 feet, and walk up to 7 miles a day all to catch a meal. In a single feeding, a dragon can eat a whopping 80 percent its body weight.
Komodo dragons mate once a year between May and August. Females release a scent in their feces and the males follow the trail. When located, the male will use their sharp claws, that are typically used for shredding meat, to gently scratch her back and then lick her. A lick back means she consents to mating. Oftentimes, two males will have to wrestle one another for the female, biting into each other's necks and whipping their large, muscular tails at one another. Eggs are laid in September, about thirty to one female, and they are buried underground for eight months. If a female cannot find a male, she fertilizes her own eggs in a process known as parthenogenesis. This occurs because female Komodo dragons are born with both male and female chromosomes. Although useful to replenish their population, this type of reproduction only results in male offspring and can lead to inbreeding.
As humans have further inhabited the islands, more and more forest and bush has been burned to clear the area. This along with poaching has caused the Komodo dragons to rise to the level of vulnerable in conservation status. In 1980, Indonesia established a 700-square-mile Komodo National Park to protect the Komodo dragon and its habitat and now it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Komodo dragons are the flagship species of the Lesser Sundas Deciduous Forests ecoregion, located in the Southeast Indonesian Dry Forest Islands (AU15) bioregion.