Breathing Fire The Komodo Dragon

We have to state at the beginning that neither one of us has ever had the pleasure of personally meeting a wild Komodo dragon, the largest of the monitor lizard family and feared denizen of several small Indonesian islands. But, being hominids, we succumb to the fear they may have generated within the primate brain for millions of years. For worst nightmares there is really nothing comparable to the thought of a gray, slobbery, 9-inch-long forked tongue picking up your scent and tracking you to an inevitable death by disembowelment. The creature possessing the forked tongue is the largest predatory lizard now extant—a rapid and ravenous carnivore who easily reaches 9 feet in length from snout to tail.36 And on top of that, it is capable of taking down a half-ton water buffalo by an efficient two-step process: first step, immobilize large prey by severing tendons in hind legs; second step, administer a coup de grace by ripping out the intestines.

Komodo dragons are terrestrial and feed mostly on mammals, including monkeys. Initially, explorers reported an exaggerated, almost-mythical beast 30 feet in length (hence the dragon appelation). It was not until 1912 that scientists recognized the species officially. Actually, the reality is impressive enough without any embellishment: Komodo dragons average 9 feet in length for males (some full-grown adult males may reach 10 feet in length, but this is a maximum) and 6 feet for females. Weight of a 9-foot specimen has been estimated at as much as 550 pounds, but some experts speculate there may be a difference of hundreds of pounds between a Komodo dragon with a full stomach versus the same animal without a recent meal. Regardless of length or weight, no exaggeration was involved when early naturalists reported that the bites of Komodo dragons were lethal, and they were "occasionally man-eating."37

The range of this species is restricted in modern times to a group of islands called the Sundas, part of Indonesia. The best known of the islands is the volcanic dome of Komodo where seasonal temperatures can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The Komodo dragons are not particularly active during the heat of the day. They are, however, very agile creatures, and the giant monitors are considered terrestrial, aquatic (they've been seen swimming to smaller islets where sheep are pastured in order to prey on them), and even arboreal when they are young.

The hunting strategy of all monitor lizards is relatively active in comparison to other reptiles that prey on primates. Formidable predators, Komodo dragons hunt much like the big cats. They hide by the side of game trails and strike swiftly with a sudden lunge at large mammals as they pass by, grabbing at the leg or throat and throwing the hapless victim to the ground. Like many reptiles, Komodo dragons share the trait of swallowing large prey whole. (A small Komodo, weighing just 101 pounds, managed to swallow a 90-pound wild pig.) The jaws are very strong and the teeth are shark-like, able to rip and shred as well as bite. Evisceration of prey is quickly accomplished—15 minutes from attack to scraps in the case of one 40-pound pig. Besides the ambush strategy, monitor lizards pick up scent trails with their long forked tongues and follow them to prey. Their tongues are highly specialized—a bifurcated, highly sensory tip connected to a resilient base. The tongue, in essence, looks like a huge, gray, wet rubber strap, extending and retracting with elastic snaps.38

Walter Auffenberg (the American herpetologist acknowledged as a world expert on monitor lizards), launched a 13-month study on Komodo dragons in the late 1970s for his doctoral dissertation, the most comprehensive field research so far on the species. Auffenberg contended that the Komodo dragons attack humans without provocation. This makes sense since a rapacious carnivore that can attack, kill, and eat a 1,000-pound buffalo, and is known to devour monkeys, surely would find humans an appropriate prey item. Auffenberg reported that native workers on his project were injured both while working in the bush and sleeping. Members of the expedition were attacked while in their tents and even while located in blinds trying to observe the animals. One of Auffenberg's men was killed by a Komodo dragon instantly; other fatalities were from infection. Virulent infection, because their mouths are loaded with bacteria, and hemorrhage are eventualities if humans are wounded by a lizard.39

The aggressiveness of the Komodo dragon has been attributed to its position as the only large carnivore on the islands where it occurs. Komodo dragons are also scavengers and one popular conception is that they will unearth and eat human corpses—bodies left from warfare or buried in shallow graves. Such a ghoulish vision is likely based on the attraction of monitors to carrion; groups of them tend to congregate and gulp down hunks of dead animals.40

A television documentary about the Komodo dragons, aired on the Discovery Channel,41 emphasized that local people have learned to coexist with the huge reptiles, respecting them by taking precautions but not living in terror or, alternatively, calling for elimination of the predators. Only nine island residents have been killed by the lizards. Most of the human victims have been visitors, one casualty being Baron Rudolf Von Reding Biberegg, who earned the dubious distinction of being the first European victim of a Komodo dragon. A camera, hat, and one bloodstained shoe were the only remains of the baron after he mysteriously disappeared on the island of Komodo in 1974. The baron was touring with a group but lagged behind after an arduous climb. One moment he was in view of the rest of his party and vice versa; the next moment he was gone.42

Despite all the emphasis on the aggressive nature of the Komodo lizards, there is mention more than once of the intelligence and variation in individual animals' behaviors. A photograph even survives from 1929 showing an infant playing with an unrestrained adult Komodo dragon at the London Zoo.43

So few studies have dealt with predator—prey interactions of monitor lizards that it is impossible to assess what impact they may have on primates in general and on our hominid ancestors in particular. The fossil record of this family—the varanids—begins earlier than the snakes, sometime between 65 and 100 million years ago.44 The close relationship of monitors with snakes is a point of general agreement with those who study reptile evolution and is based on the presence of similar forked and retractable tongues in both groups.45

The largest fossil member of the monitor group has been named Megalania. It reached lengths of 20 feet and roamed Asia and Australia. Fossil evidence supports Megalanids existence in Australia until less than one million years ago.46

While we have focused on just one species of the monitors—the Komodo dragon—the monitor lizard family is quite varied. Asian water monitors are large predatory reptiles inhabiting Sri Lanka, India, the extreme south of China, and eastward to the Philippines and Indonesia.

Sri Lankan Reptiles
Nile crocodiles have a well-deserved reputation for dining on non-human and human primates. (S. C. Bisserot/Nature Photographers)

They measure approximately 4.5—6 feet in length and weigh about 100 pounds, although in 1983 a 7.5-foot water monitor was observed in Malaysia.47 Water monitors have formidable claws and sharp teeth, along with a well-developed sense of smell and keen eyesight (but they do not have the bulk of the Komodo dragons). In addition they are good swimmers, run at high speed on land (they are said to be able to outrun a man), and are agile arboreally. One can speculate that water monitors, along with their bulkier Komodo cousins, might qualify as potential hominid predators in the distant past.

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  • Nebay Mehari
    Is a komodo dragon a primate?
    9 years ago

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