Classification and Range
Komodo dragons are also known as Komodo monitors, or by the local Indonesian name, "ora." These giant lizards belong to the family Varanidae, which includes 52 species of monitor lizards. All varanids belong to a single genus. Varanus includes very tiny lizards only a few inches long to the immense Komodo dragon. Komodo dragons live on four southeastern Indonesian islands in the Lesser Sunda region: Flores, Gili Motang, Komodo and Rinca. As recent as the 1970s, their habitat also included the island of Padar.
Komodo dragons inhabit hot, seasonally arid grasslands, savannas and monsoon forests. They live mostly in the lowlands, but have occasionally been found at elevations up to 1,967 feet (600 m).
Male length: Commonly up to 9 feet (2.75 m) long, including tail, although the record is slightly over 10 feet (3 m). Males and females do not appear to be strikingly different, with the exception of size. A different arrangement of the scales around the genital opening is one distinguishing characteristic between the sexes. Adult Komodos are mostly black, green or gray, with patches of yellow-brown or white.
Male weight: An exceptionally large male can weigh as much as 550 pounds (250 kg) after a large meal (about half that on an empty stomach). Females tend to be shorter and weigh less: up to 7.5 feet (2.3 m) long, and up to 150 pounds (67.5 kg).
Life span in the wild is unknown. Komodo dragons have lived up to 25 years in captivity; this is based on estimated age at acquisition.
In the wild: The primary prey for wild adult dragons is the Sunda deer, but they also eat birds, snakes, fish, crabs, snails, small mammals, pigs, water buffalo, eggs, wild horses and younger Komodos. Komodo dragons are also scavengers, and will eat almost any type of carrion. At the zoo: Mainly rodents, NOT offered alive.
Sexual maturity likely occurs at 5 to 7 years of age. The breeding season is from May to August, as dominant males fight other males to gain mating rights with females. Before mating, the winning male courts the female. To initiate mating, they touch tongues, rub snouts and scrape chins. When the female accepts his advances or is too tired to outrun the male, he climbs on her back, scratching her and sometimes lightly biting her neck.
Copulation is a relatively quick affair. Six to eight weeks later, in the months of July through September, Komodo females lay their clutch of 15-30 eggs. The female usually lays them in a burrow dug into a hillside or in the sand. Eggs are oval, smooth, and 2 inches (5 cm) wide by 4 inches (10 cm) long. Females rarely guard the nests and, if so, only for a short amount of time. The eggs incubate for eight to nine months, and hatch at the beginning of the dry season in April. The hatchlings are 10-22 inches (25-56 cm) in length, weighing less than 3.5 ounces (100 g
Hatchlings are multicolored, with different parts of their body in brown, yellow, orange and red, covered by a pattern of black and white speckles, stripes and bands. This coloration camouflages them in trees. Young dragons remain arboreal for a few years, eating bird eggs, insects and small mammals. As they grow larger, juveniles eat rats, mice or birds. When they reach about 4 feet (1.2 m) in length (at 4 to 5 years of age), adolescents become too large to climb trees, and shift to a terrestrial lifestyle.
Komodos are solitary, but will gather in groups to rapidly consume large prey, or to breed. Younger dragons sometime circle a group of feeding adults waiting for a chance at some leftover food. They do so cautiously, as they can easily be mauled to death by the dominant male. Smaller dragons are forced to roam over large areas in search of food and potential mates, sharing their space with other subordinate lizards. Dominant males are more aggressive about guarding their territories, which overlap the home ranges of adult females. Smaller or weaker Komodos use an appeasement posture to signal the end of a dispute over territory, prey or mates. Signs of Komodo aggression include puffing out the throat, hissing, adopting a semicircular stance and thrashing of the tail.
Komodo dragons bask in the morning sun to raise their body temperature. During the hottest parts of the day, they retreat to cool areas, as the outside temperature can easily exceed 100°F (38°C). At night, to minimize heat loss, they seek cover in brush, caves, or burrows (either ones made by other animals, or ones they make themselves).
By weight, Komodos are the world's largest lizard; their long, thick tails are sometimes half their total body length. A hardy constitution has enabled them to survive for millions of years as the dominant predator in an environment that is inhospitable to other large meat-eaters. Komodos are also excellent swimmers, allowing them to travel between islands in search of food or mates. While swimming they use their tails for propulsion in the strong marine currents. Komodos have flat, long heads with rounded snouts. They amble about on short, powerful legs. Small, smooth scales cover their body. They have powerful claws, and are surprisingly quick in their attack. For large prey, dragons may attack the prey's feet and lower legs, inflicting terrible bites in an attempt to bring down the animal.
They have been recorded taking down a 1,300 pound (590 kg) water buffalo. Smaller prey usually get snapped up with a quick lunge, led with wide open jaws. Despite their fearsome reputation, Komodos are rarely successful when attacking. For this reason, carrion sometimes makes up the bulk of their diet. A Komodo dragon regulates its internal body temperature by alternately basking in or seeking refuge from the sun. This allows them to use 10% of the energy a similar-sized mammal would need to survive. Like most reptiles, Komodos have a low resting metabolic rate. Studies show that even a large individual can survive on as little as 1 pound (.45 kg) of food per day.
Komodos have an excellent sense of smell. Using a long, yellow forked tongue, they are able to find carrion up to 6.8 miles (11 km) away. They also use their tongue to investigate other Komodo defecation sites; it provides information about another's sex, size and age. Although their eyes detect motion better than stationary objects, dragons can see objects more than 984 feet (300 m) away. Komodos are not deaf, but they do hear only in a restricted hearing range of 400-2,000 Hertz.
Komodo dragons have mouths full of flat, serrated teeth, highly adapted for cutting flesh. The teeth break off easily and are replaced frequently; a dragon may grow as many as 200 new teeth each year. A dragon rushes from the vegetation in which it was camouflaged and ambushes its prey. Its acute sense of smell leads the Komodo to the dying victim, which has run off some distance. Bacteria in a Komodo's saliva are highly dangerous, and quickly cause infections. Komodos are not affected by the infectious saliva of nonlethal bites from other members of their species. Their saliva is a source of great interest for many scientists, since its properties may help control diseases in the future.
Komodos actively hunt their prey, roaming their territory in search of food. They can eat up to 80% of their body weight at one meal, at a rate of up to 5.5 pounds (2.5 kg) per minute, using their sharp teeth to carve out huge chunks of flesh and tissue. They may not need to eat again for weeks. To help them eat so much so quickly, their jaws stretch wide open, and they produce a large amount of saliva to help move food down the throat.
Komodos are efficient eaters, consuming almost 90% of their prey. Komodo dragons digest all parts of a meal except for the hair, horns or hooves; these simply pass through the lizards' digestive tracts. Komodos can extract up to 80% of their water needs from the flesh of prey. This is especially helpful in times of drought, which can last for months.
Location at the Zoo
Woodland Park Zoo's Komodo dragons can be viewed in their exhibit at the Trail of Adaptations. Their exhibit provides a multilevel, naturalistic setting that contains major components of their normal habitat. Other species of lizards at Woodland Park Zoo can be found in the Day Exhibit.
Komodo dragons were first listed on Appendix I of CITES on July 1, 1975 and listed as an endangered species on June 14, 1976. This was due to its limited range and the small number of wild specimens. Currently, scientists estimate there are 3,000 - 6,000 individuals in the wild, with another 200 in captivity. Komodo dragons have the smallest range of all the large carnivores. The government of Indonesia protects most of the Komodo's range in Komodo National Park (KNP). KNP, created in 1980, consists of 669 square miles (173,300 sq hec) of land and marine area. Unfortunately, not all Komodos live in KNP, and there is little protection outside the park.
Exportation of Komodos is allowed only by the president of Indonesia, and they have been designated the National Animal of Indonesia. There are several threats to the Komodo, most of them caused by humans. Habitat loss, fear (which leads to dragon poaching or poisoning of carrion), pests and exotic species (such as wild dogs and rats), fire, and expanding human population all pose problems. Poachers often kill the food that Komodos rely on, reducing the available prey populations. Komodos sometimes also eat native livestock, which leads to confrontations with humans.
One uncontrollable threat comes in the form of potential natural catastrophes. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tidal waves occur in the area. All monitor lizards are listed as Appendix II (threatened) animals by Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). At least three species of monitors are also protected under the Endangered Species Act, and listed on Appendix I. Many species of snakes and lizards are considered endangered or threatened by the pet trade, or the animal products trade.
The United States is the world's largest market for wildlife products, much of which includes illegal trafficking and the black market. Almost 2 million live reptiles are brought into this country every year, while almost 10 million live reptiles are exported annually. The first captive breeding of Komodo dragons in the USA occurred in 1992. There is an international zoo studbook for Komodo dragons, which records their various bloodlines in captivity as a tool for genetically managing the zoo population.
In addition to maintaining Komodo National Park, Indonesia also preserves the Komodo by raising captive-bred dragons for other zoos. As the dominant predator in their habitat range, Komodo dragons eliminate weak, sick, or dead animals, maintaining the balance of nature. They keep populations of prey species in check; otherwise these species could quickly overpopulate and destroy isolated and fragile island habitats. Though their name may invoke fear, Komodo dragons rarely attack humans. There are less than 20 credible accounts of dragon-caused deaths in the past 100 years.
How You Can Help!
The effort to save endangered species requires cooperation and support at the international, national, regional and individual levels. You can help in this cause. Join and become active in Woodland Park Zoo and other conservation organizations of your choice. Please do not buy products made from wild animal parts. Contact your elected representatives and express your views about conservation of endangered species and wild habitats.If you wish to own or keep a reptile as a pet, contact a local herpetological society, or the American Federation of Herpetoculture: AFH, P.O. Box 300067, Escondido, CA, 92030-0067.
Reptiles as Pets
We do not recommend reptiles as pets for most people as they require very specialized diets and environments. We also receive hundreds of requests each year to take former pet iguanas, boas and other reptiles but we cannot accept these due to space, health and unknown backgrounds.
If you need to find a reptile or amphibian a new home, we suggest you contact a local herpetological group in your area. In the Puget Sound region, you may contact the Pacific Northwest Herpetological Society as a resource. Contact Woodland Park Zoo at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out about ways you can support conservation programs at the zoo. Discover more about snakes by contacting the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles at 303 W. 39th St., P.O. Box 626, Hays, KS 67601. Learn other ways you can help conserve wildlife and the habitats they require for survival by visiting our How You Can Help page.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Auffenberg, Walter. The Behavioral Ecology of the Komodo Monitor.University of Florida, Gainesville, FL. 406 p.
Lutz, Dick and J. Marie. 1997. Komodo, the Living Dragon. Dimi Press, Salem, OR. 173 p.